Theo and Nacho for Welbeck and Gibbs: Preview & Predicted Line-Up

Arsenal – Everton  Match Preview

The Show Must Go On 

 

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Every time Arsenal disappoints a portion of our Gooners souls are crushed.  In drawing AS Monaco in the round of 16 many Gooners believed we finally had a chance to get a bit deeper into the Champions League eliminations.  If we could beat them in a bit of style, draw a team in the quarters who maybe didn’t quite have their feet totally under themselves, well, who knows, anything is possible in football.

Wednesday night may have proved that adage, but not as expected.  Hopeful Gooners didn’t see it coming, but we witnessed a nervous performance and a capitulation which took us aback.  Moderate early dominance led to a realization that our opponent was well organized and difficult to break down.  A lucky (and deflected) strike from distance gave them the away goal and the upper hand in the tie.  There was no initial panic but we made no headway as we played out the first 45.

After halftime there seemed increased desire but still no equalizer.  We pushed and we pushed but maybe we pushed too much.  A simple loss of possession high up the pitch led to missed tackles and chasing on the break.  2-nil.  More chances, many rushed, all squandered, until, finally, substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got one back.  Those who had stayed in the stadium had a little something to get excited about.  Except they didn’t.  Too eager from the kickoff, the Ox made another dash at goal but left the ball behind.  Again the break was on and Monaco finished it, and most likely our Champions League hopes, in ruthless fashion.

Now, with just three days of rest to find perspective and regroup, Arsenal face always tough Everton in front of our none-too-happy home support.  It will not be an easy match. In fact, we haven’t beaten this club (in the league) in our last 5 attempts, but a reaction is necessary.  Arsenal need a result and a performance, both to maintain their position in the league and to restore a bit of belief amongst the players and the fans.

It could be argued we’re playing Everton at a good time.  They actually come into the match on even less rest due to their Europa League exploits.   At least they will be riding a wave of confidence, having beaten BSC Young Boys (Switzerland) 3-1 and completing a 7-2 aggregate win over two legs.  For winning that they will face two more Thursday matches against Dinamo Kiev, one of which will require travel to war-torn Ukraine.  All of that will be only for a chance to get to the quarter-finals of the Europa League.  Still, given that they’re in the bottom half of the league table, winning that tournament is their best chance of getting into next year’s Champions League.

It’s a far cry from the scare the Toffees gave us a season ago, when losing to them in a desultory 3-0 at Goodison Park in April shunted them into (and us out of) the top four Champions League places.  We were able to win our remaining six matches (including the FA Cup final) while they stumbled, but it still remains an indication of the threat posed by the Blues.  Roberto Martinez’ team may need to prioritize their progress in Europe but they will surely do so fighting for every scrap of confidence they can find.  Nothing would help more than a composed performance and stealing points against wounded Arsenal.

As such, I expect a composed and committed performance from Everton.  Can we match it?  In my opinion, composure is what we lacked in the mid-week loss.  Some might have seen a lack of spirit or passion in that performance, but I saw players, if anything, trying too hard, rushing their chances and losing their discipline, especially when it came to positioning as the match wore on.  Monaco was playing us to absorb our attack and spring on the counter and we obliged by stepping into the trap.  A similar dynamic will likely play out in the Everton match.  As much as we need to make a statement in front of our home fans, it must be done in methodical fashion.  Patience, never the long-suit amongst Gooners, could be a watch-word.

Everton’s most recent league match, at home, against attack-minded Leicester City, showed that they can be broken down.  In that one, the visitors, despite going behind against the run of play, scored two goals in the 2nd half and were unlucky to leave Goodison with only a point, a late own-goal rescuing the draw for the home team.  They may switch things up against us, but their rearguard, featuring American keeper Tim Howard and all British back four (Phil Jagielka, John Stones or Sylvain Distin , Leyton Baines and Seamus Coleman) can be breached.  Martinez typically allows the fullbacks freedom to get forward but then packs the center of the pitch with midfielders known as much for their defending as their attack.  Gareth Barry is the most notorious for his cynicism but James McCarthy and Muhamed Besic, while possessing a bit more trickery and pace, are players who play with commitment and defensive focus.  Ross Barkley, the talented but hot-tempered English youngster can be dangerous, both in getting forward on the dribble and spotting the through-ball.  Up front, the focus is on the big man Romelu Lukaku, but keying on him comes with the peril of ignoring more consistent finishers like Stephen Naismith and Kevin Mirallas.   Despite their struggles this season and their likely desire to focus on Europe, we should not believe that Everton will be pushovers.

How will Arsene Wenger try and get our boys up for this challenge and who will he pick to do the job?  While some Gooners will call for wholesale changes after the Monaco match, I seriously doubt Wenger will answer those calls.  Many are pointing fingers at David Ospina and want Wojcheik Szczesny back in goal.  Others are still having nightmares from the failures of our two tallest (and slowest?) players, Olivier Giroud and Per Mertesacker, and wish to leave them out.  Still others lament over the work ethic (or lack thereof) of Mesut Ozil, or the fact that Santi Cazorla was unable to put a definitive stamp on the CL match.  Sorry, I don’t see any of them being dropped.

Time for the god of speed  to step it up.

Time for the god of speed to step it up.

Instead, I believe our indiscipline was mainly at the full-back positions so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nacho Monreal in for Kieran Gibbs.  Hector Bellerin may also make way for Calum Chambers, although he may be seen as the better alternative for containing Baines.  With Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini still unavailable and Jack Wilshere undergoing a minor surgery, Francis Coquelin will have to reprise his role in defensive midfield.  Oxlade-Chamberlain, who came on in his stead on Wednesday, is unlikely to get his spot.  While he got us on the board in midweek, his over-eagerness also was at the heart of Monaco’s late killer.  On the other hand, Theo Walcott, who came on for the ineffectual Giroud, I think, may finally get a start.  If he does, my bet is that it’s at the expense of Welbeck rather than big Ollie, who helps so much in giving our offense its shape and defending at set pieces.

Here then is my best guess at our first 11.

ars v everton Feb 15

(Subs = Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rosicky, Welbeck)

As matches following tough CL games go, Everton is not a great opponent to face.  Additionally, while a home tie would seem to favour us, the hostility of the disappointed support will always be lurking and ready to rear its ugly head should we concede early or even look less than fully in control.  We need to start the match well and make early chances count.  Full focus will be expected and required.

Can we get the needed reaction and all three points? 

Will Wenger go with a largely unchanged group or try out some of his more rested players? 

Is this a time to rotate or does he wait for Wednesday at QPR? 

Who would you play and why?

This is a big one.  We have no choice but to get right back on top of the horse which bucked us off.   We simply must.  Go on then…

By 17highburyterrace

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Arsene Wenger’s biggest challenge is in midfield

Having had some time to reflect on our painful defeat on Wednesday, I am feeling a bit more positive now. I reckon it was a reality check for almost all of us.

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We are still a team that is looking for its true identity: some days we are brilliant, many days we are adequate and some days we are rubbish. And on Wednesday, as a team, we were bad, especially after we conceded the first goal. As long as Arsene does not get the midfield right, we will continue to have mixed performances.

We started slow but we were in control. There was a certain caution in our game and, given Monaco’s Portuguese style of play, which focuses hard on defending and breaking out quickly as soon as the ball is regained, that made sense – especially when we play a slow CB in the centre of our defence. I would have liked us to play a higher line and put more pressure on Monaco, with fast CBs – which would exclude Per on this occasion – as the best cover for their counter attacks; but leaving the BFG out of this big game was unlikely to happen. I would also have been happy with us playing deep and inviting them to come and attack us, for which Per would have been great of course. In the end we got a bit of both and it did not work out.

However, there is always an element of luck which determines the outcome of games: they scored with a deflection and we had our own man (Theo) blocking a sure goal from Welbeck. The Konogbia shot might have gone in without the deflection, but it was a big slice of luck for Monaco nevertheless. When you play a counterattacking team, nothing is worse than conceding the ‘away goal’ as the first one in a two-legged match. Playing in front of the home crowd means that sooner or later more risks will be taken, and that is exactly what the opponent was waiting for: and they punished us in style, it has to be said.

It was, of course, also a master class of how to play deep and on the counter; and, as we also witnessed when Monaco played against us in the Emirates Cup, their players are fit and strong, play with excellent team discipline and game plan, and are not afraid to make cynical fouls. As others have mentioned, the game had that horrible Mourinho feeling about it: it is the sort of football – not alien to us any more either – that sucks the life out of you, looks for your weaknesses and punishes you remorselessly. And they did.

Our game plan, a mixture of sitting semi-deep and pressing semi-high, did not work out. Wenger was right to have a go at our defending and we were also unlucky that Giroud had a bad-hair-day, as it could have been very different had he found the net early on, but I hope our long-in-the-teeth manager will also see that his game tactics did not work. I guess it is the fear of conceding an away goal against a strong defensive team that kept Arsene from going all out on attack; and I also reckon it is the belief in our own attacking strengths and qualities that kept us from playing the Monaco brand of footie.

On top of that, we just have not got the mix in midfield right to know what we can expect and deal with any opponent/tactics effectively. The Monaco midfield out-powered and out-witted ours and it was not the first time that we lost the battle in this crucial area this season. All our midfielders are great but getting the chemistry right in our 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formations is proving to be Arsene’s biggest challenge again this season.

Ox scored the goal of the night and it could still be a very important one. But the way we conceded the last one, with our young Englishman at the root of it, was the most painful moment of this season for me. Now we have to score at least three times to go through, which is really one too many. But this result also forces Wenger’s hand in three weeks time; it allows our team to play to our natural instincts and playing culture. It is about all out attack and giving them hell: never time to settle and show them what the Arsenal are all about. It probably will not be enough to go through, but there is something else at stake here: our spirit, our backbone, our reputation, our pride.

COYG

Stand Tall And Make Us Proud Again.

By TotalArsenal.

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Santi and Coquelin in DM-pivot, Welbeck and Alexis on wings: Line-up & Preview

Arsenal-AS Monaco  

Champions League Round of 16, First Leg

No Changes from Saturday?

The past and present are coming together for Arsene on Wednesday night.

The past and present are coming together for Arsene on Wednesday night.

There’s something about being a supporter of Arsenal which is strange.  Maybe it’s the same with all football clubs and all teams in all sports, but I would doubt it.  For Gooners, there’s the game, but there’s also what it means.

Nothing means more than the elimination rounds of the Champions League, the biggest trophy (literally and figuratively) in all of club football.   Arsene Wenger, the longest serving manager of an English club by approximately a factor of 10, has gotten his teams to this stage of the competition every year since the second group stage was eliminated.  It’s a feat which represents an amazing consistency and, as they say, if you’re not in it, you can’t win it.  Still, as so many of Wenger’s detractors might argue, we haven’t won it, so what’s so great about always being in a competition we DON’T actually win?

The answer, of course, is money, but that’s a topic that (ideally) will not be on our minds as our supporters take up their (most-expensive-in-all-of-Europe) seats to watch their team play AS Monaco tomorrow night.  Those same fans will know that just about anything can happen.  Four years ago, in this same round and in memorable fashion, Arsenal came from a goal down to beat FC Barcelona on the strength of goals from Robin Van Persie and Andrey Arshavin.  More recently, in the group stage last Autumn, Arsenal blew a three goal lead vs Anderlecht FC, and, with it, the chance to win our group.   “Anything at Arsenal,” (or it’s converse, “No Such Thing as a Sure Thing…”) maybe ought to be our mantra…

Drawing that latter match meant coming 2nd in the group and a possibility of drawing the three tough Spanish clubs (Atletico and Real Madrid and Barca) or Bayern Munich (for the third straight season) or AS Monaco–clearly the most promising option for progressing further.  For once, a bit of luck came our way.

Ah, Monaco…the tiny principality on the French Riviera which conjures up so many images.  For people from the States like me (of a certain age) it will always be the home of actress Grace Kelly who became Princess and later died tragically in a car crash.   Marry that to the image of James Bond playing Baccarat at the Monte Carlo casino and the romance of the tiny tax haven is extreme.  It is this tax-exempt element which has allowed the football club to punch above its weight.  It was a launching point for our manager some 25+ years ago and for one of our greatest players, Thierry Henry, not long after Wenger had departed.  More recently, it has been a gathering place for some very talented (and expensive) footballers.  This past Summer saw the exodus of Colombians Rademal Falcao and James Rodriguez, but Monaco still boasts pedigreed players like Joao Motinho, Ricardo Carvalho, Jeremy Toulalan, Martin Steklenburg and Dimitar Berbatov.  These players are attracted by the relatively higher salaries (or amounts they–and their agents–can keep due to lower taxes) as are younger prospects like French U-21 sensation (and the defensive midfielder many wanted at Arsenal) Geoffrey Kongdogbia, Portuguese mid-fielder Bernado Silva and the exciting Belgian speedster Yannick Ferriera Carrasco.

With players like these, Monaco didn’t win their group with luck alone.  And, even though manager Leonardo Jardim insists his team is not all about defending, surely they will set out to limit our offensive threat and play on the break.  Why shouldn’t they, given that they came only a single goal shy of keeping a perfect record of 6 clean sheets during the group stage of this tournament and are unbeaten in their last 17 matches in all competitions having conceded only 3 goals?   In their most recent match, despite playing with only 10 men for over half the match, they kept a clean sheet and prevailed over Cote d’Azur rival Nice, poaching the winning goal with pressing from the front.

Breaking down such a formidable opponent will not be easy even if Monaco may have to shift personnel due to injury and the suspension of Toulalan.

Arsenal, by contrast, in recent matches at least, have been scoring early and then defending those leads with somewhat mixed results.  In our own league the clean sheets have dried up and a one goal lead at Spurs was not enough.   Against teams closer to the bottom, Leicester City and Crystal Palace, scoring twice in the first half has been a recipe for success even if we haven’t appeared fully convincing defending those leads and seeing them halved as the matches wore on.

Perhaps the best blueprint for this match was the last time we played against a team from another league.  Against Middlesbrough, leaders of the English second division, Arsenal played its most beguiling football of the season and two goals (scored in the space of just a couple of minutes) were enough to add punctuation to a pattern of dominance.  Our reward is a big quarterfinal match-up at Manchester United in the FA Cup.  Monaco tomorrow night represents a big step up in competition, but with the away goals rule in place (a clean sheet being the first priority for the home side) it may also suggest how Arsenal wants to approach our play in these cup ties.  A platform of strong defence, aggressive play from our full backs and dominance in midfield (to carry into return legs) will be the priorities.  As they say, you cannot win the tie in the first leg, but you sure can lose it…

Fitness news suggests all who played at Crystal Palace are available for this one and there are no new injuries in the squad, except that Jack Wilshere (an unused sub at the weekend) will be “short” for this match, even though “he did not have a setback.”  Hmmm.  Amongst the several languages Wenger speaks, “injury news” is the only one which does not have a translation dictionary.  My guess is that Wenger will not change much, if at all, from the weekend.  Here then is my best guess at the line-up.

arse v Monaco Feb 15

(Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Walcott, Akpom)

Keen observers (those still reading…) will note that this is an unchanged line-up from Saturday with the only change being Flamini in Wilshere’s bench seat.  Boring. boring Arsene…

Of course, what (the f**k) do I know?  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Theo out there instead of Welbeck or Gibbs (who was very effective, especially in attack vs Boro) in at left back.  Has Hector Bellerin been dropped or is he truly carrying a knock?  His experience with continental referee styles might be helpful.  There was some suggestion that Szczesny might come back in for Ospina, who seemed hurt in the Palace match before carrying on, but I cannot see that happening as long as the Colombian does enough to keep winning matches.   We have matches coming thick and fast (after this we play Everton on Sunday then QPR next Wednesday), but exerting full dominance in this home leg, including, ideally a clean sheet plus a goal or two, might allow for more rotation in the future.

What do you guys think?  Will Wenger go for the same line-up or is this a chance to ring in the changes?

Regardless, this is as fine a chance to get off on the correct foot in the elimination rounds as we’ve had in several seasons.  The squad seems healthier, deeper and stronger even if the names of the clubs in the final 16 appear as daunting as ever.

Can we get past this round (for the first time in 5 seasons)?  How far can we go in the tournament?  So many questions and the answers start tomorrow night.  Go on, then…

By 17highburyterrace

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Theo in Trouble: Would he make Arsenal’s Best-11?

A nightmare on Arsenal's wing

My previous post (in which I pointed out our need for improvement) was inspired by performances such as that against Crystal Palace. We were very lucky to leave with three points and in my opinion, given the squad we have, these aren’t words that should be coming out of my mouth – much less against such opposition. Anyway, the important thing is we got the three points and I’m hoping we have taken the lessons from that game.

My post today comes from a very curious place. I have noticed that Welbeck & the Ox have been getting the nod over Theo despite the fact that he is one of our team’s best finishers. Interestingly, when I watched Welbeck play against the Spuds, I thought to myself that Theo is in a very precarious position right now. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but the more I see how our team is playing the more I fear for him.

Apart from Sanchez, I doubt there is a better finisher in our team than Theo. The problem is he offers very little when we are chasing possession. You watch how hard the Ox, Welbz, Alexis (obviously), Santi & even Ozil work to win back possession, and you begin to see Theo in a new light. In truth, he doesn’t work hard enough for the team. When we don’t have possession Theo is more of a ‘lurker’. He lurks around waiting for one of his team mates to win back possession and he sparks into life. Mesut Ozil learned the hard way but is now one of our 4 top performers.

What makes this situation even more ominous is that these days we aren’t the Arsenal who used to dominate games from minute zero to 90. In a game like against Crystal Palace, Theo’s shortcomings would have been laid bare for all to see. On top of that, he would be playing opposite Alexis whose work rate would put him to shame. When we signed Alexis we signed someone who would take our team to a new level. He is simply an inspirational character. That is why some of our players have taken their games up a notch.

To be fair to Theo, he missed a whole year of football. Arsene Wenger said (and rightly so) that the pre-injury Theo was the best he had ever seen and that is why I am still backing him to regain his place in the starting 11. That said he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. When Theo got injured he left a team that was to some extent dependent on him and his goals, but he returned to find a team with stars everywhere on the field. He no longer can waltz into the team like he used to.

I still believe that Theo will get back to his best and reclaim his place. He will find that doing that isn’t as easy as he may have imagined. And who can complain when everyone in the team is making each other better?

COYG!

Thanks Voetbal International for picture

Thanks Voetbal International for picture

By Marcus

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Coquelin’s bite, Giroud’s deadliness, Welbeck improving: Eight Positives from Game.

Coquelin1

Well, that was another game in which we scored easily and just enough goals to claim all three points. This sitting deep and beating opponents on the counter is most definitely our ‘plan B’ this season… it is not for the faint-hearted, though. Just as we did against the Spuds, we were unable/unwilling to push up and release the pressure on our defence, and we almost paid for this again.

For a long time, we looked in control though, and we should take heart from this; and had Alexis converted the fabulous team counter we produced mid-through the second half, it would have been a lot easier for us. Arsene’s subs did not help at all but I was happy he took off both Ozil and Alexis to avoid a late injury to them: we will need them even more on Wednesday.

Why we were unable to release the pressure by pushing The Eagles back again, or by keeping the ball better, or by more effective counter football, is hard to explain. I guess the boys were in doubt whether to defend the lead or to add to it, and Pardew’s men did a good job at pressurising our central midfielders. Since the former Barcodes manager arrived, Palace have won many games and this showed in the confidence with which the Eagles played.

As a team we need to learn from these games so we can improve our plan-B further. Nothing wrong with that, though, as long as we learn fast…

Eight Positives from the game:

  1. Welbeck was far more effective in this game than in his previous ones, with better reading of the game and positioning. He earned the penalty by putting pressure on the CP defence and he made a strong and direct run into the box, anticipating Alexis’ through-ball; and his subsequent attempt on goal had plenty of venom, which forced the keeper to parry the ball into the danger zone.
  2. Giroud scored his fiftieth Arsenal goal and that in just 116 games, giving him a 0.43 goals per game average in a red and white shirt. We know how important his overall role is in the team, but Ollie is now adding regular goals to his game as well, with 10 goals in less than 900 minutes this season.
  3. Coquelin added the necessary bite to the team and he did a great job in shielding the defence on Saturday. He still needs to control his tackles a bit, but at times he was simply sublime, with great reading of the game and effective interceptions, as well as confidently passing the ball out of our half.
  4. Ozil and Alexis helped out our defence really well. This is not Mesut’s natural game but he was often deep to support his full back and the same goes for Mesut, who is great at coming back to regain the ball and move it forward again. I felt we lacked this support almost as soon as they left the field.
  5. Our win today was helped by a large dollop of luck, but I will not be complaining about it! With Manure dropping all three points at the Jacks, the Spuds drawing and the Saints losing, we have made a big leap forward. With Everton home and QPR away as our next games, we have a decent opportunity to hang on to our third place and produce a little gap with some of our main competitors for the CL places.
  6. Santi has taken over from Arteta the role of secure penalty convertor. Mikel was a safe pair of hands for this and it is great that Santi has fully and successfully embraced this important role within the team.
  7. Squad depth: being able to bring on fit and experienced players like Rosicky, Gibbs and Gabriel, with Jack and Theo on the bench as well, is just great. They did not make a big difference on the day, but having a strong bench at this stage of the season is simply fantastic.
  8. Per and Koz defended very well, especially with regards to the continuous high balls into the box. It was really good to see us so demanding in the air for almost the entire game; eliminating the threat of Palace’s strong wing-play to a large extent (the FBs Monreal and Chambers were truly tested and sometimes found wanting).

Olivier-Giroud-AFP_3208367b

Now bring on the Principality and give them some old fashioned Wengerball! :)

 By TotalArsenal.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Ospina, Coquelin, BFG and Nacho returns? Line-Up and Preview

Crystal Palace Match Preview

1st of 4 in London–Can Arsenal win them all?

palace fans

Obviously, matches must be taken one at a time, but to be a top club and meet the expectations of the modern supporter, just winning them isn’t enough.  Points must be taken and they must be taken in a manner that allows fans to feel sufficiently confident about what’s coming down the line.  After all, there’s enough anxiety in our lives as it is.  It’s an inherently outlandish idea–this is sport after all–but such demands do seem to come with the territory.

As such, these next four matches–all featuring no more than coach travel for the squad, and contested against clubs we feel we should beat–are critical.  In this period, which, in terms of playing matches in London also included the previous 4 matches as well, manager Arsene Wenger has a chance to test and tweak all elements of his squad.   Winning the matches is necessary, of course, but so too is finding out which players are best suited to the tactical approaches we take into our biggest tests as the season reaches its climax.  This means competition for starting positions but also noting combinations (of players) who can react to score-lines and mould their tactical play to our advantage.   Before getting into the specifics of the match tomorrow in Croydon, let’s look at the London fixtures and those which lay ahead.

London Fixtures

Previous 4

Aston Villa  (home league win) 5-nil

Tottenham  (away league loss) 1-2 

Leicester City (home league win) 2-1 

Middlesbrough (home FA Cup win) 2-0

Next 4

Crystal Palace (away, league) 

Monaco (home, CL) 

Everton (home, league)

Queens Park Rangers (away, league)

Following 4

Manchester United (away, FA cup)

West Ham (home, league)

Monaco (away, CL)

Newcastle (away, league)

santi short

It should be noted the games are coming thick and fast and these next eight will conclude (with an International break) on March 21–exactly 4 short weeks from tomorrow.   Fasten your seatbelts.  Right there in the middle is the big FA Cup quarterfinal showdown with Manchester United at Old Trafford.  We can play for a draw and a home replay in that one, but we’ll be happier with such a result only if we’re confident we can complete the job in London.  Our form leading into it, and the result up there, will be absolutely massive as the fixture list toughens.

Looked at in this manner the pressure on the team is too much.  So, to quote a wise, old (well not so old) Dutch blog owner, “O-GAAT,” meaning, I think, “Please Lord” in his native tongue.  Of course, it’s also an acronym for One Game at a Time, which is exactly how they must be played.

Tomorrow at Crystal Palace, home of the bird (the eagle) and the birds–the American Football styled cheerleaders who greet the players as they take the pitch–Arsenal will face their first hurdle.  Since taking over as manager, Alan Pardew’s team has only lost one in eight matches.  And, while Arsenal have taken nine points from nine since Palace came up a year and a half ago, it would be foolish to underestimate the challenge.  We should also remember that Palace almost stole two points on our ground in the opening match of the season.  An early set piece goal from Brede Hangeland was matched by one from Laurent Koscielny, but only an injury time winner from Aaron Ramsey prevented a real disappointment.

Palace will not be a pushover.  If they were, they’d surely be lower in the table considering all they have endured this season.  In the lead-up to our opening day match they were abandoned by manager Tony Pulis, who wanted a better contract after his manager-of-the-year winning work the previous season.  This was followed by a period of uncertainty before Neil Warnock managed for a stint of less than twenty matches, and now the Pardew takeover.  All told it’s amazing that the club has managed to avoid looking a favourite for the drop, and they have a resiliency which must be respected.

They also have some good players, including a very solid spine in the team.  Keeper Julian Speroni can both command his area well for a smaller keeper and come up with impressive saves.  Center backs Hangeland and Scott Dann are seasoned veterans in the league and deeper lying mids, James MacArthur and Mile Jedinak, if passed fit, are fighters with solid technique.  The latter, whose leadership has helped his mates through this turbulent season, can curl a mean free kick, so Arsenal defenders will have to beware of giving away cheap fouls in bad positions.  In attack, we all know Maroune Chamakh’s frustrating (but relentless and sometimes successful) approach to his craft as well as the pace in guys like Dwight Gayle, Frasier Campbell and Wilfried Zaha.  Yannick Bollasie and Jason Puncheon bring both power and trickery and should not be overlooked as attacking threats.

Pardew (to be aided by his captain, Jedinak, just back from Asian Cup duties with Austrailia) has the group working together; so, assuming this will be a simple trip across the river to collect three points and an exhibition of our more pricey talent, would be foolish in the extreme.  Instead Arsenal have to build upon the good work done last Sunday in advancing to the quarter finals of the FA Cup.  In that one, sublime spacing and build-up play amongst attacking midfielders Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Alexi Sanchez showed Arsenal at its very best.  Free interchanging all over the pitch with each other and line-leaders Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck–while also utilizing our very attack minded fullbacks, Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs–worked a real treat.  Even though the score-line was modest and came in bang-bang fashion, Arsenal were able to keep Championship leaders Middlesbrough pinned in their own half and hanging on for dear life.  It didn’t hurt that Mathieu Flamini, Laurent Kolscielny and debutante Gabriel Paulista were also working very hard to anticipate clearances and keep the pressure at very high levels.  If not for great work from the Boro keeper and CBs to cut out and force more difficult chances in and near their 6 yard box, the score-line could’ve been far more flattering.

Noting that the starting group vs Boro included 7 changes to the squad which took the pitch vs Leicester, it was enough to suggest that competition for places seems to be keeping our players at their best up and down the line-up.  So, despite the excellent display, I would expect a few changes from that line-up – especially at the back, where the first group seems far from set.  Although Wojchiek Szcznesy was hardly troubled in keeping a clean sheet in the cup match, I would expect David Ospina to come back into the team.  Per Mertesacker will also likely take back the arm-band and Nacho Monreal will most likely replace Gibbs at left back.  Hector Bellerin faces a late fitness test so Calum Chambers may retain his place.  Laurent Koscielny probably slides to the left side of central defence and may be the only other rearguard player to keep a starting spot.

Flamini, who likely would’ve been back on the bench in favour of Francis Coquelin, is reported to be struggling with a hamstring injury, but Jack Wilshere seems fully recovered from his longer term ankle problem and will likely feature.  Suggestions are that it still might be too early for him to start a match.  With all the rotation at the back, I think, especially on the strength of the display last Sunday, that the manager may not want to rotate much, if at all, amongst the attackers.

Here then is my best guess at our starting line-up.

arse v CP Feb 15

(Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Wilshere, Rosicky, Walcott, Akpom)

In my opinion the squad is looking very strong and very, very deep.  We still have players out injured, but only Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy are long term.  Just getting into the first 18 would seem a real task for guys like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey who are back in training or not far from it.  From a style and dominance perspective, the most recent match seemed a very positive advancement.  It’s all about production, however, and Gooners will not tolerate the slightest hiccup.  On this site, for example, that 2 nil result was seen as a very modest score-line by some, and only two players were singled out for genuine praise in a mid-week post.  Hanging on for a 2-1 victory over Leicester City in our previous league match was widely considered abject.  The less said about losing (after taking an early lead) in the most recent North London derby, the better.

Given this atmosphere I sometimes wonder if squad depth isn’t a bit of a double edged sword.  Obviously, we need it if we wish to compete on multiple fronts, but expectations–amongst supporters at least–seem so high that when score-lines are not lopsided or any frailty is shown, managerial choices are scrutinized at a level that would please a laboratory scientist.  Amongst Gooners–all of whom are would-be managers–there is no such thing as bad luck and fault can always be found.  (On that note, the referee for this match is Mark Clattenburg, one of the better ones, in my opinion, but he’s working on only minimal rest after a midweek Champions League match.  Strange call might play a role…) Excuses are not tolerated and 2nd chances are few and far between.  Here in the Goonersphere, players are measured not only on recent performances and results but against legends from previous decades and names from around the world who we might buy as replacements.  Others maintain a hair-trigger on a metaphorical weapon aimed at the manager’s head.  Suggestions abound for players on the bench, or not even available in the squad, who are seen as superior options to any player who has done less than impeccable work on the pitch.

That’s the reality at any “big club,” I guess, but it works against building a sense of trust amongst players–the 11 on the pitch at any one time and the (proverbial) 12th man on the terraces.  If any mistake will be punished–by our own supporters, no less–a very brittle confidence must be a consequence. This is the dreaded hand-brake Wenger talks about.  Fear of mistakes inhibits our best play.

With his “little knocks” and keeping players “just short,” the manager clearly tries to keep the squad insulated from this atmosphere and collective confidence, we would hope, is high after the previous match.  If circumstances were to cause that confidence to wane, however, a small tremor of anxiety might be enough to set off an avalanche of negativity, hence my belief that tomorrow’s match is for far more than the 3 points on offer.  These matches in London have the potential to lift us up a level and prepare us for tougher travels yet to come.

Still, it only takes the slightest of missteps to sow the seeds of doubt; Crystal Palace tomorrow thus takes on added significance.  Go on…

By 17highburyterrace

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Is Thierry Back For Good?

I hope everyone is still riding on the buzz of our previous performance. This is going to be a short post.

B-NrItXIMAAHU_c

So King Henry finally decided to hang up his boots. Everybody knew the day would come but that doesn’t make the hole he has left in world football any smaller. Arguably the best CF to ever grace the English shores. He is now a sky sports pundit, but more importantly, he is helping out Trevor Bumstead with the under 15’s. He really did mean it when he said he is a Gunner for life.

I am sure there is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that Thierry has a wealth of knowledge to share. It makes total sense that he is being given a chance to blood his managerial skills with the next generation. The biggest advantage about that is that he can get to learn how to spot and nurture talent (kind of like what Arsene did with him), which is a very important skill to have in modern football. Just ask the coaching staff at Southampton.

The aim of this post though is to try and establish how Arsenal can get maximum value from him.

Both aforementioned jobs are part time (I stand corrected) and, therefore, he still has plenty of time on his hands to take up a more involved role at the club. I was really thinking about it and what if (on top of his current obligations) he is given a few sessions a week with our strikers (and attacking midfielders) so he can give them some coaching on movement & finishing.

Really, just think about it: players like Welbeck, Oxlade, Gnabry & Wilshere need to contribute more goals than they do now to really propel them to the next level. If we examine each player’s shortcomings, you can see these are all things Thierry can help to fix.

Welbeck – His movement is great but he lacks confidence in his finishing. The skill & talent are there but maybe he needs a few sessions with the master to really come into his own.

Oxlade – For me the Ox doesn’t get into scoring positions often enough. He is more of a touchline hugging winger, but in a system like ours, where our attackers are given the freedom to roam, he needs to be scoring more. Again, maybe the master can coach him on his movement.

Gnabry – I think he is similar to the Ox in terms of what he needs to learn.

Wilshere – He really needs to learn how to shoot/finish. For a player who gets into the box as often as he does, he surely does not score enough. Maybe this is something a few sessions with the master can fix.

This is not limited to just these four; I am just using them as an example. Also, I have no knowledge of what Henry’s schedule is like, so from my end this is just a suggestion.

I am, of course, not opposed to having a team of players who can score given the opportunity…. What do you think?

COYG!!

By Marcus

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