FA Cup Preview and Line-up: Let’s Make it a Dozen

Arsenal – Aston Villa  FA Cup Final Match Preview
This Is It.  Arsenal return to Wembley to try and win their record 12th FA Cup and the 6th of manager Arsene Wenger’s tenure.  Doing so would break the deadlock with Manchester United and make Arsenal the most successful club in the history of the oldest competition in all of club football.   It would also place Wenger ahead of Sir Alex Ferguson as the modern manager with the most FA Cups to his name and put him level with George Ramsey who won his 6th FA Cup with Aston Villa in 1920.
Ironic then, that to do so, Wenger’s Arsenal must defeat another Villa team, this one led by (Gooner) Tim Sherwood and featuring a revitalized group he was able to keep in the Premier League.   Like the trophy we won a year ago against Hull City, it’s another classic David vs Goliath confrontation and another must win for the Arsenal.  It’s a single football match, but it’s also a gauge for the collective mood of all Gooners headed into the summer.  Win it–ideally in less stressful fashion than we won the previous version–and it’s about tweaking the squad to challenge the best in the country (and on the continent) in the season to come.  The alternative really does not bear consideration.  Suffice it to say, any result which does not include lifting the cup will undo whatever progress we seem to have made, re-open old wounds and take Wenger’s Arsenal back to the proverbial square one.
That’s pressure and exactly what comes with the territory when you take the pitch in the National stadium.
With the exception of our steady progression through the tournament, this FA Cup has been replete with upsets and with big clubs faltering under these sorts of pressures.  The 3rd round, held that first weekend in January and representing the moment the biggest clubs finally have to play, featured no big upsets.  The 4th round, however, was one for the ages.  Playing in their home stadiums Chelsea (2-4 vs Bradford City), Manchester City (nil-2 vs Middlesbrough), Tottenham (1-2 vs Leicester City) and Southampton (2-3 vs Crystal Palace) ALL lost.  Manchester United and Liverpool both drew and had to face replays.  What a weekend.   Arsenal, having already beaten Hull (2-nil) in a replay of last year’s final in the previous round, traveled to Brighton and won 3-2.
In the 5th round, Arsenal played some fine football and got two rapid fire goals from Olivier Giroud to beat ManCity killers, Boro, but then got drawn to travel to Old Trafford and face Manchester United in a quarterfinal showdown which many predicted would determine the eventual cup winner.  Indeed, it was a memorable one.   Goals from Nacho Monreal and Danny Welbeck–in his first appearance in front of the fans of his former club–and some bold whistles by referee Michael Oliver against ManU’s band of diving divas (and the sending off of Angel Di Maria when his protestations included a shove to the referee’s back) were the lasting images.
It was a key moment in Arsenal’s season, but it would mean nothing, of course, if we then blew it at Wembley.
The semi-final vs Reading FC showed that a motivated opponent could be successful in thwarting our attack and creating trouble for us.   Arsenal slowly warmed to the fight and finally, in the 39th minute, Mesut Ozil found Alexis Sanchez whose diagonal run, cool control and quick finish gave us the lead.  We were unable to add to it in the 2nd half, however, and Reading equalized when an attack down our right side led to a cross and deflected shot which beat our cup keeper, Wojciech Szczesny.  Aaron Ramsey almost won it in regular time with a shot on frame and forced a save from Adam Federici as the extra time got underway.   In the end, it was much tamer shot from Alexis which got the better of the Reading keeper who somehow let the ball go through his body and over the line before he could fully control it or scramble it away.
Now we return to the National stadium for the final and the stiffer challenge of Aston Villa.
Their early progression in the cup featured home wins over Blackpool and Bournemouth, each one by a single goal.  Those wins, however, were not enough to save manager Paul Lambert who was fired in early February.  Sherwood’s takeover featured new chances for players up and down the squad to prove themselves.  Soon after he took over, Villa beat Leicester City in the 5th round of the cup and then West Bromwich Albion in the quarterfinals.  Both matches featured goals from one such new player, Scott Sinclair, acquired from Manchester City in January.
As Sherwood’s tenure moved on, other players emerged.  Christian Benteke, finally recovered from injury, began showing why he is one of the most feared center forwards in England.  19 year old Jack Grealish, a player who hardly featured under Lambert, was given a real run in the team and has sparked tremendous excitement with his ability to take on defenders and cause havoc in attack.  Fabian Delph and Tom Cleverly have also established a solid presence in midfield.  Suddenly, under Sherwood, Villa could score goals and their defense, riddled all season by injuries, wasn’t compromised at quite the level it had been, for example, in the league matches we had played against them earlier.  Those two were some of the most comprehensive victories of our league campaign–the first a 3 nil battering at Villa Park in September, the 2nd a 5 nil romp at our place.
As Sherwood’s Villa worked themselves away from the drop zone they appeared a team who no longer played not to lose.  By April their league survival looked increasingly secure.  Their best result of all, however, came in the Cup semi-final against LIverpool.  After going a goal down, Villa outplayed the heavy favorites and earned their return trip to Wembley through goals from Benteke and Delph.   They’ve stumbled a bit since, including losing their final two league matches, but Sherwood has accomplished what he was hired to do and this cup final surely will be seen as a crowning moment.  Unlike Arsenal, who simply MUST win in order to confirm that our 3rd place finish in the league was a positive step forward, Villa will come into this one with absolutely nothing to lose.
With that attitude guiding him, Sherwood, I think, will have his players believing they can both defend and attack as needed.  Unlike many who are expecting that he will set out a parked bus, I suspect he will have his boys geed up to have a real go at us from the opening kickoff.  If they cannot score from open play, earning set-pieces–aimed at Benteke’s big frame or off the fine right foot of Leandro Bacuna–could be the path to glory.  We should thus be fully prepared for a physical battle in all areas of the pitch.  As such, we cannot take too much from the success we had in our last match against West Brom who defended in a somnambulant style.  Villa will be much more confident that they can match, if not even overpower our midfield and backline.  Our players must cover and fight for one another and we could use a friend in referee Jonathan Moss.  My hunch is that Wenger will revert back to the more physically robust group which started 6 matches on the trot, with one exception, Szczesny in goal.   It’s a little harsh on the goal scorers from the last match, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, but we should remember that this match could go 120 minutes.  If they’re introduced they might have an extra half hour to make an impact, at which point their pace and drive might work a treat against a tired Villa squad.  Here then is my predicted first 11:
Szczesny
Bellerin-Mertesacker-Koscielny-Monreal
Ramsey-Coquelin-Cazorla
Ozil-Alexis
Giroud
Subs: Ospina, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, Walcott
Squad selection in an end of season cup final is a huge responsibility for the manager and he must take great care in handing the double-edged sword of pressure and opportunity to his men.  It also has implications for the make-up of the squad and the future of individual players heading into the close season.  Overall, by way of fitness or lack thereof, I think the squad more or less picks itself, except, perhaps, at the two positions at either end of the pitch: goalkeeper and center forward.  Szczesny, dropped as the number 1 keeper for league matches in January, has been in net for each round of our cup progression.  I believe he will get the nod tomorrow to compensate for having to watch a year ago as his compatriot and back-up, Lukas Fabianski, did the keeping.  A clean sheet would go a long way toward restoring equity in his competition with David Ospina for the position going into the new season.  A critical error or not being selected, however, could put his Arsenal future in doubt.
I also believe Giroud will be selected to lead our line.  His return from injury around the beginning of the new year was as big a factor as any other in our improved form in 2015.  Moreover, for this one, his height, like Szczesny’s, will be needed to defend against Benteke at set pieces.  Even though his last goal was almost two months ago and was a late one which only added gloss in our home league win over Liverpool, he adds so much more than that.  As the focal point for our attack he frees our midfielders to use him for quick 1-2s or longer moments of hold up play.  Playing an occasional ball towards his big body from out wide, if not likely to result in a goal, can at least serve as a tactic to restore a little extra attacking space through the middle of the pitch.
Obviously, any cup final is a big match.  As much as all the pressure resides on our shoulders it’s also an opportunity for players to make their marks in Arsenal lore.  For example, how much pleasure might Giroud take if he were to score a goal (or more), something a certain critic of his was never able to accomplish in an Arsenal shirt (nor in a France or Barcelona kit).  As Gooners we’d all like to avoid a repeat of the early goals we conceded against Hull City a year ago in this same match.  Still, the goals scored by Santi Cazorla and Laurent Koscielny which brought us back into that one, plus the winner from Aaron Ramsey, will not soon be forgotten.  This is the stuff from which memories are made.
Finally, and speaking of memories… We haven’t heard plans from our fearless–but also very busy–leader, Total Arsenal, recently, but there was talk a few weeks back about shutting down the site, at least for the summer.  With less involvement from him, traffic on the site appears to have dropped off dramatically.  Of course, it may also be that Arsenal have been performing closer to the expectations of Gooners so there’s less need to vent frustration and propose easy (and often untestable) solutions.  It could also simply be that the season is coming to an end and the longer days and better weather beckons.  Regardless, I just wanted to say that I’ve enjoyed writing the match previews these past few months and that I want to offer HUGE THANKS to all who have read them and commented.  It’s been a privilege.  Like my friend, James Bond (007, our superspy…) said in his most recent post (which, sadly, was also a couple of weeks ago…), “Blogging is an addiction.”  As such, if this place closes, you will probably be able to find me in the comments section of some other Arsenal blog somewhere.  We can never know what the future holds so we cannot know when our football team will be back in a cup final nor when we will gather again in the Goonersphere to celebrate or dissect their performance.  Like we hope our team does tomorrow, let’s enjoy this one…
Go on then…
By 17highburyterrace
Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Jack for Le Coq, Ramsey on Right, Ospina on Bench: WBA Preview & Predicted Line-Up

Arsenal – WBA Match Preview and Thoughts on the League Season

Arsenal host West Bromwich Albion on “Championship Sunday” in an almost meaningless match. Hopefully the weather is agreeable and it’s a nice day out for all involved. If we can rest a couple of key players and build a bit of confidence headed towards the FA Cup final at Wembley in a week’s time, all the better.

We could use it, given that Arsenal have been held scoreless in our last 3 home matches and only have a stress free Sunday by dint of a deflected Theo Walcott cross which found the net late on at Manchester United. If that ball hadn’t gone in we would need to win this match to secure 3rd place in the league and Champions League group stage football without a two-legged qualifier in August. As it is, United would need to win their match against Hull City while we lose ours and also erase a 7 goal margin to beat us on goal difference. In other words, theoretically they could take third, just as theoretically we could buy Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Kun Aguero to give us that elusive “world class striker” so many Gooners seem to crave. More starkly put–it ain’t gonna happen.

So, barring a calamity of truly epic proportions–we will finish third. Some player rotation might offer signals before the cup final, but mostly it’s a day for the fans and the players to acknowledge their, er, appreciation for one another. Since I won’t be attending the match, here’s my chance to do likewise.

If we win, our points total will be 75, 4 less than a year ago. Nonetheless, in my opinion, this Arsenal team is much improved over a year ago. Recent results (we’ve won 1, lost 1 and drawn 3 of our last 5 matches) are a worry–as well as a primary reason we haven’t exceeded last years points total–but we hit our best form in the 2nd half of the season and look far more settled heading into the summer. We have a contract issue with one player (Theo Walcott) but he’s played a far less important role than the guy we lost last year (Bacary Sagna) who was our starting right back AND our 3rd choice center back. Moreover, despite having lost big chunks of their season to injury, players like Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscileny have all grown into more dependable presences within the squad. Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Danny Welbeck (bought at the September 1st deadline) have also suffered injury troubles, but, at times, have shown real glimpses of what they can add to the team.

Additionally, players acquired last summer have contributed massively. Alexis Sanchez, of course, deserves heaps of praise for taking England by storm and, in the Autumn, as others fell by the wayside all around him, taking the club on his shoulders, Atlas-style, and keeping us within shouting distance of the top teams. As others returned to action, his goal scoring dropped off, but his tireless tracking was a real feature in some of our new found ability to limit the opposition and stay in matches we had been blown out of in recent seasons. In the away matches against the other top 4 clubs a year ago we lost 6-3, 5-1 and 6-nil. This season, despite losing at Stamford Bridge 2-nil, we won by a similar scoreline at Manchester City and drew 1-1 (just a week ago) at United. We are no longer a soft touch in those big away matches.

Another player acquired last summer has played a major role. David Ospina, the Colombian #1, has taken over for Wojciech Szczesny as our net-minder. Acquired for just a few million pounds from FC Nice, some are unimpressed by Ospina’s smaller stature and somewhat weak kicking and believe this is an area for improvement through the transfer market. Still, he seems a calming influence and a very decisive keeper, able to come off his line quickly and willing to guess and dive early–often forcing finishers to readjust their 1 v 1 efforts. When it doesn’t come off it can look bad, but when it does, it saves a goal. As much as Ospina has relegated Szczesny to the bench, I don’t think the Pole in goal’s time with us is over. I believe he will play both this weekend and in the cup final. If he passes those tests he could easily be the man between the sticks for the very early start in the season to come. Overall, the competition between the two has done nothing but help.

Younger players are creating the same effect elsewhere. Hector Bellerin, a very fine attacking right back and all-round footballer, has made the injuries to Mathieu Debuchy, the summer signing charged with filling Sagna’s big shoes, almost a non-issue. Callum Chambers, another one bought over the summer, also did good work in that position (and at center back) and gained enough first team experience to step in if we need him. January signing, Gabriel Paulista, another young center back, did very well in his handful of outings to also look ready and able if Laurent Koscielny or (more likely) Per Mertesacker were to appear not quite up to the pace. Most impressively, the presence of Francis Coquelin, back from a pair of loan spells, transformed Arsenal into a team which looks as if it were both willing and able to play in a defend-first style. After all the goals and other happier moments of the season are reviewed and discussed, the most telling image of them all might be our Coq standing tall and yelling at his mates as we absorbed pressure in the season-defining match at Manchester City.

That we needed Coquelin so badly tells a story of its own: mostly that the deeper lying midfielders and some members of our back line are showing their age. Captain Mikel Arteta was another player stopped by injury from making a real contribution and Mathieu Flamini looked better as a late sub to protect scorelines than as a player ready to hold one of these positions. (The less said about the hoped-for recovery of Abou Diaby, the better.) Ultimately, Santi Cazorla, usually seen as a #10 or playmaker type, dropped into a deeper role alongside Coquelin and looked the part. His ball control and ability to stroke the long pass–with either foot–are exactly what the position demands even if he won’t contest too many headers, no matter how high he might gel his faux-hawk. Similarly, another Spaniard, Nacho Monreal, stepped up as a stop-gap at center back, but then also made his preferred left back position into his own, despite the best efforts of Kieran Gibbs to nail down the spot. As much as recent comments about our lack of goal scoring will drive the summer transfer talk, outside candidates for these less glamorous positions will also get plenty of print in the back pages. My hope is that we take care of our business early and give whoever is set to compete for these spots as full a pre-season as possible.

If we can do that and have a bit better luck with injuries I see no reason this squad cannot continue to grow and improve and at least compete for the league title. Through all the difficult moments and the tough criticism rendered by our always demanding supporters, the group seemed determined to stay together and work for one another and manager Arsene Wenger. As much as fans were calling for his head during the darker times–the “thank you” banner in the reverse fixture at West Brom was a real low point–the man and his players seemed to see the bigger picture, which will include securing automatic CL qualification and the cup final. It’s not the limit of our ambitions, of course, but, to me at least, it’s a step in the right direction.

So, back to the match at hand. While some Gooners might want us to wrap our best players in cotton wool (which seems a weird one–aren’t cotton and wool different fabrics?…) I think the majority of the group needs another chance to try and break down a team playing for a nil-nil. Tony Pulis, right up there with Jose Mourniho amongst the greatest of all the bus parking managers, and his boys from the black country should provide a stern test and be able to defend at least as well as that other Birmingham area club we play in the cup final. They’ve also got a fine finisher in Saido Berahino who could trouble us on the break. Chris Brunt is the on-field (and very feisty) face of Pulis’ team and veterans Jonas Olsson and Joleon Lescott, while not the most mobile pair, have worked well with back-up keeper Boaz Myhill–a guy who has almost done enough in place of injured Ben Foster to deserve a call up to the England squad. West Brom stumbled a bit in the early Spring but clearly are finishing the season well.

We may hope that they’ll be satisfied after their 3-nil gazumping of the league champions a week ago but that’s not the sort of attitude which made Pulis the man he is. As much as we might want to rest and rotate a bit or at least send out some of our more athletic types, I think Wenger will want a not very changed group to have another 90 minute effort against another team set up to stifle, while maybe suggesting that our guys remain ever alert to jumping out of the path of WBA’s more gratuitous and agricultural challenges. Injury news seems scant from Wenger this week, so here my guess at the 11 I think might play:

Arse v WBA May 15

Subs: Ospina, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Coquelin, Rosicky, Walcott

Who do you think will or ought to play? Is there a desire to talk about the season as it wraps up or just to put it into the rear-view and build for the future, i.e., dive into the transfer market or at least that sort of speculation? While I know the full measure of our season hinges heavily on the outcome at Wembley, I also feel our comeback in the league shouldn’t be under-appreciated. Others may feel differently, especially since the league winning streak–8 in a row between the defeat at White Hart Lane and the draw at home to Chelsea–has come to an end, but I think we found a way to play a reasonably reliable brand of winning football. Clearly we can still struggle with teams who have come to thwart our attack but there is a sense–for me, at least–that we’re on the right track. Or maybe not. Eye of the beholder and all that. What do my fellow Gooners think?

Given the high expectations surrounding our club, the end of the league season might come with a sense of relief. Hopefully tomorrow’s match is a good one and we move onto the national stadium and the cup final with a feeling of confidence–not to mention good will or even (dare I say it…) a bit of love and affection between supporters and club.

Go on then…

By 17highburyterrace

Posted in Uncategorized | 84 Comments

Coquelin v Fellaini: MU v Arsenal Preview and Line-Up

Manchester United – Arsenal  Match Preview

Football, like life itself, is about the long haul.  On any given day, anything can happen, but so much remains the same.  Manchester United versus Arsenal–perhaps the most important rivalry in the English Premier league–goes again on Sunday in another late season clash.  It will not determine a league champion, and both clubs look comfortable in securing Champions League play with a top four finish, but its meaning cannot be denied.  These clubs are big ones and how they fare against one another ALWAYS matters.

These have been turbulent seasons for either clubs and this match represents a chance for both to head towards the summer in a happier mood.  Of course, Arsenal also have the small issue of an FA Cup final to play–a spot they helped secure by beating ManU at Old Trafford in the quarterfinal round, back in February.  That one looms large, as it was our first win at their place in 10 tries.  United will want revenge, but we will know we can travel to their place and win.

We wouldn’t mind a bit of revenge ourselves.  In the difficult first half of the season, and coming off a tough loss at Swansea, we dominated play in the reverse fixture in North London but conceded on ManU’s first shot on goal.  Pressing hard–too hard–for an equalizer, we were caught out and conceded a 2nd, putting the match beyond reach.  A late consolation goal only underlined the painful feeling that, with a little more luck–and a bit more discipline–  the better team might have taken the points.

Both teams have come a long way since that clash in November and this one is most likely a battle for 3rd place.  Arsenal can secure that position with a draw, and a win, for either team, would suggest a claim of superiority heading into the close season.  For Arsenal, winning twice at Old Trafford would lay down a marker that we’ve nudged ahead of our old rival and further put to bed the notion that Arsenal cannot hold their own against the bigger clubs.

While there are some eerie parallels to the reverse league fixture–again we’re coming off a loss to Swansea–there are many differences.  Arsenal’s better play in 2015 has been the result of having our best players back from injury while also maintaining a more solid and stingy defensive presence.  Meanwhile, Man United have crawled back into the top four with a more scatter-gun approach.  Manager Louis Van Gaal, despite the expensive attacking options at his disposal, has been forced to rely on the more pragmatic presence of Marouane Fellaini at the center of attack.  His knock-down play–particularly with balls directed towards Wayne Rooney–isn’t pretty, but it does tend to wear down opponents.  Rooney, who took a knock in their 2-1 win at Crystal Palace a week ago, will miss this one, but others, including Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Ashley Young will be looking to step into the scoring spots.  Very expensive but more peripheral players like former Arsenal man Robin Van Persie, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria will also be keen to impress.  The latter was sent off in the cup match after shoving referee Michael Oliver who had booked him for diving.  This time, with Mike Dean at the whistle, defenders will need to beware that these very pricey, albeit part time players, bring the full bag of tricks–including the more cynical elements–to the game.  Just as we must hope the ref will not be fooled, so too must we avoid such a fate.

In addition to missing Rooney, United will also be without Luke Shaw and Michael Carrick.  Marcus Rojo may be able to slot in for Shaw and Daley Blind–either from Shaw’s spot at left back or from a position as a deep lying midfielder–will surely be working hard to stop our attack and orchestrate United’s.  Van Gaal’s team has struggled to look solid at the back so another big performance from the Premier League’s keeper of the season, David de Gea, might be required.  Rumours that the former Atletico Madrid man might be headed to the bigger Madrid team, Real, in the wake of their recent failures in both La Liga and the Champions League, might serve to shine a bright spotlight on their man between the sticks.

Will Arsenal be able to test him or will they lay back and try to absorb whatever pressure United might bring?  Certainly, the latter approach has been the more successful one on our earlier trips to Manchester.  In the FA Cup match, Francis Coquelin, despite giving up several inches (in both height and hair) to Fellaini, kept the big man’s contribution to a minimum.  In that one, as in the 2-nil victory earlier in the winter across town at Manchester City, Coquelin’s work was complimented by our wide attackers dropping deeper to help out.  Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez made strong contributions in those matches as did Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey.  The Ox (who also set up the first goal in the Cup quarterfinal) is out through injury as is the former United player, Danny Welbeck, who nicked in to steal the ball and score the winner.  His inclusion in that one–at the expense of usual front man, Olivier Giroud–in hindsight, looked a master stroke from manager Arsene Wenger.

Where will the inspiration come for this one?  With Ox and DW missing, Wenger may be tempted to play a 6th straight match with an unchanged team.  As I’m tired of picking minor changes and being wrong, that’s the squad I’m guessing at.  Moreover, I think Wenger will want to give this group a chance to make amends for the smash and grab loss vs Swansea.  They didn’t play poorly in that one, but a hint of complacency may have crept into their game given the run of strong results from previous matches.  Knowing each others tendencies, and the little bit of extra space United might give us if they try some attack themselves, means using the same group might work a real treat.  Others, of course, may have different ideas.

Predicted Line-up:

arse v manure May 15

Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Wilshere, Rosicky, Walcott

The Swansea match showed that the margins are tight.  Slightly better finishing might have swung that one our way.  Against United, in their big and hostile stadium, and against players of undoubted quality, the margins will be even tighter.  With all the attacking talent they have, Arsenal will have to be ever aware to defensive positioning and execution.  Still, if we can win the battle in midfield and work our attack to its full potential, we have the quality to make them pay.

Motivation may also play a role.  Finishing as high up the table as possible and locking down a top 3–and automatic group stage spot in the Champions league–is nothing to sniff at.  United will be buying big in the summer.  Already they’ve agreed terms with the exciting Dutch winger Memphis Depay.   That could mean the end for some of the attackers who will feature in this one.  Will those guys (including Depay’s countryman Van Persie) be keen to impress or will they have one foot already out the door?  Will Arsenal’s more collective approach (especially, if the starting 11 remain unchanged) work to show that this team can really accomplish bigger things ahead of the cup final and the new season?   At the highest level, where both Arsenal and ManU aspire to reside, clubs have money and (at least in United’s case) they don’t hesitate to spend it.  Still, football is a team game, and the better group tends to prevail.  In my opinion, Arsenal’s season has been salvaged–and we sense some real promise for the future–because we’ve hung tight and evolved as a collective.  A result tomorrow would go a long way to proving that thesis.

Go on then… 

By 17highburyterrace

Posted in Uncategorized | 125 Comments

Wilshere, Santi, Ozil in the same First-11: Swansea Preview and Line-Up

Wenger Worries on his Welsh Warrior and Welbeck; Who Will Wow us at (w)Right Wing: Wilshere or Walcott?

Jack's back

Jack’s back

Last time Arsenal played Swansea I went with alliteration in the match preview, using many a word which began with the letter S.  That one ended in another S word, so I shall not repeat that style for the return fixture.  Hopefully, a little Monday night football in front of the home support–and against a team securely in mid-table and struggling with injury issues–will be a chance to continue our fine run of recent form and get right back to some of the irresistible attacking football we played up at Hull City.

With Chelsea already crowned as league champions, Manchester United losing and failing to score in their last 3 matches (before yesterday’s game) and Liverpool 5 points behind us with two less to play, some might argue that Arsenal look very secure for a Champions league spot and also have nothing to play for.   I would respectfully disagree.

We may be safer than usual for the top-4 and also out of contention for the major trophies, but the team and individual players will want to lay down a marker before our trip to Old Trafford in a week and before the FA Cup final at the end of the month.  Additionally, all but the most jaundiced Gooner will have noted the pure fun the players were having in their last outing.  Jack Wilshere was positively bursting at the seams to get in on it in a substitute’s role, while Aaron Ramsey looked sore at being pulled off so Jack could do so.  Others will want a chance, and the team will be itching to get back at it.  Unfortunately, again, they–and we–must wait until Monday night.

Sitting nine places and 19 points higher in the league table, Swansea should represent a tougher challenge than Hull, who were perhaps looking ahead towards more winnable matches in their struggle against relegation.  While Arsenal were weakened through injury when we lost to them in the aforementioned match back in November, Gooners who watched it will know that the Swans are an unselfish group who balance patience with a measure of quality and attacking flair.  Both teams were cautious in the first half of that one but it came to life in the 2nd, especially after Arsenal scored a lovely goal on the counter.  Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain got us ahead of their lines and fine work from Santi Cazorla, Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez capped it off.  Unfortunately, Swansea responded in kind.   A beautiful Gylfi Sigurdsson free kick made the score 1-1 and, just three minutes later, Jefferson Montero crossed for Bafetimbi Gomis to seal the defeat.

Swansea will bring that same sort of quality and resolve into this one.   They will also bring former Arsenal goalkeeper, Lukas Fabianski, who, on the strength of a fine first season with his new club, will be keen to show what we gave up when we allowed his contract to run down.  The Swans greater struggle will be up front.  Gomis will likely return to action after a hamstring strain, but Wilfried Bony, the true fulcrum of their attack, is gone, having transferred to Manchester City in January.  Nelson Oliviera has held down the position in recent matches but he hobbled off after 40 minutes vs Stoke a week ago.

This means it will be more about Swansea’s excellent midfield men.  In addition to the quality always on display with Sigurdsson, Jonjo Shelvy loves a belt from audacious distances and is an imposing physical presence.  Sung-Yeung Ki is quietly putting together a fine season and is one who is always on the move, specializing in finding spaces between defenders and pouncing on poorly cleared loose balls.  Leon Britton and Nathan Dyer should not be underestimated due to their diminutive statures as surely Montero will not, having tortured Callum Chambers down our right side in that earlier match.  Wayne Routledge will miss out through injury, but the bigger worry for Gary Monk’s team will be finding four to field in front of Fabianski.  Kyle Naughton and Jordi Amat are both out.  Still, Ashley Williams, a player many have stumped for at Arsenal, and, perhaps, former Arsenal trainee, Kyle Bartley, who played very well in the earlier match, will provide resistance.  No matter who plays, we can count on Monk’s squad to give a solid effort over the entire 90 minutes.  At times this season, especially in January after they sold Bony, observers have expected a let up from his group.  Monk must be doing something right as none has yet to be seen.

Arsenal should not let down either.  The easiest way to get up for 2nd in the league–which would be our highest finish in a decade–will be taking full points from our three remaining home matches.  We also have the FA Cup final looming on the horizon and players should be keen to lock down their positions for that one.  Most of all, we are a much improved side since that earlier match.  Not only are Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud back and anchoring our attack, but we’re also a rebuilt squad at the rear. Laurent Koscielny has returned to partner Per Mertesacker, meaning Nacho Monreal will play as left back rather than alongside the big German, as he was forced to do in Wales.  Likewise, the pace of Hector Bellerin on the right should present more of a challenge to Montero than Chambers was able to muster.  Moreover, on either side of this back-4 will be the calmer presence of our new #1 keeper, David Ospina, while Francis Coquelin will take the role Mathieu Flamini played as our deepest lying mid-fielder.   All told, these seven positional changes (six new faces) have made for a group which gives Gooners a more solid sensation, with a record of results to back up the feeling.  Nine wins and a draw from our last 10 in the league is nothing to be sniffed at.

Up front, in addition to Ozil and Giroud, Alexis has re-found his goal scoring form and has his sights set on Thierry Henry’s tally of 17 league goals from the legendary striker’s first season with the club.  With some of the scoring burden lifted, Santi Cazorla is showing off his full array of skills from a deeper lying spot alongside Coquelin.  Ramsey, having taken that knock at Hull, has not been training, so he will likely be held out of this one.

Will it be Wilshere, who made many remember his qualities in his cameo up there, or Theo Walcott in for the former Cardiff player or might Wenger go wild and give Tomas Rosicky a run?   Mathieu Debuchy, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will not go, but fears that the latter two were done for the season were allayed in comments from Wenger this week. 

My hunch is that the injuries in our squad are not so desperate and that most players could play if they were needed, as they may be for the ManUnited match or in the Cup Final.  At full fitness, many fine players in our squad must be left out of our first-11 and even the subs bench.

Here’s my best guess as to who will make those spots:

ars v swan

 Subs: Szczesny, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Arteta, Rosicky, Walcott

In truth, it’s a more conservative bunch of choices than I would have expected a couple of weeks ago.  My hunch is that Wenger will go with the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” mindset.  Additionally, it may be irresistible to try and play the best football we can, especially in light of other teams, notably Barcelona, doing likewise in their 3-nil Champions League win this past Wednesday vs Bayern Munich.  Both teams played to a very high level but the deadlock was broken on the superiority of Lionel Messi late on.  Wenger, I think, might want to see more of what his best group can produce so as to assess his squad and think about tactics for getting the very best out of them–all the while considering tweaks for the off-season.  As much as many believe he’s overly indulgent with his current players, I sense a ruthless streak as he nears the end of his coaching career.  Individuals must show what they’ve got and suffer no May-laise (sorry).  With good players waiting in the wings–and plenty who wouldn’t mind joining over the summer–this is no time for a let down. Swansea might appear to have nothing left to play for, as perhaps some might believe we also do not.   I think a deeper look reveals plenty.

Go on then…

By 17HighburyTerrace

Posted in Uncategorized | 158 Comments

The CoCa wall – with Rambo, Ozil, Alexis behind OG: Hull Line-Up | Preview

A Monday Night in May. Where Does Motivation Come From as the Season Winds Down?

A trip to Hull. On a Monday night. The League Title celebrated the day before in South London. Can this Arsenal team find the motivation to play professionally and put the hurt to a team playing for survival? It’s a real question but one which I think we can answer in the affirmative.

Hull-Citys-KC-Stadium-001

Let’s make no bones about it, Hull will test us. Their recent wins at Crystal Palace and, in their own KC Stadium, against Liverpool, have stopped their late season fall towards the relegation zone. The teams looking for a way up and out of that part of the table have targeted Hull and their very difficult final matches, including this one. With those wins, however, Hull have reversed their slide and now look a good bet to stay up. They can afford to drop points to us, but why should they? The easiest time to play well–and spring another upset–is when you’re already doing so. If you can do it in front of your home support, all the better.

Luckily, Arsenal have enough experience playing Steve Bruce’s team to take nothing for granted. Last season, in this same fixture, also played late on, we survived an early (mostly) aerial onslaught and then won 3-nil on a goal from Aaron Ramsey and a brace from Lukas Poldolski. Hull brought a similar style to the FA Cup final at Wembley and their two early goals from set pieces meant Arsenal needed goals from Santi Cazorla and Laurent Kolscielny to level things in regular time. That got us to extra time, where Aaron Ramsey was able to slot home so that Arsenal could lift its first trophy in almost a decade.

While those matches might be a template for Hull’s approach to Monday’s match, they’ve also shown that they can hurt us from open play. In the reverse fixture played back in October, Arsenal were lucky to escape with a single point. It looked like it might be an easy one, but, after an early Alexis goal, Hull were able to equalize quickly through Mohamed Diame and then frustrate us for the remainder of the first half. Taking advantage of slack defending immediately after the half time talk, a quick cross from Ahmed Elmohamady found the head of Abel Hernandez to make it 2-1. From there, Hull proved extremely difficult to break down and only a 91st minute goal, made when Alexis was able to break through their lines to find Danny Welbeck, grabbed us the consolation point.

That match was a real low point for Arsenal this past Autumn, and we were missing several players who have now become fixtures in our first 11. Since the beginning of 2015 things have been much better and we were able to beat Hull in rather routine and convincing fashion (2-nil) when the finalists faced each other in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Already, at that time, Bruce seemed to be girding his group for the relegation battle they now face. With their two recent wins they sit on 34 points and cannot fall into the bottom 3 no matter the result of this one. For this we should be grateful. Their fine recent play has come through patience and commitment along with the emergence of a new scoring threat in Dame N’Doye. They will not be easy to break down and we must beware their threat on the break.
They are also very good at frustrating through their use of the entire pitch. Former Spurs Michael Dawson, Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore can control the ball from deeper central positions and Elmohamady is always dangerous on the wing. Beware also experienced players like Gaston Ramirez and Sone Aluko. We may catch a break as Diame and Nikita Jelavic are listed as injury doubts and the imposing defender Curtis Davies is definitely out. What Hull might lack in pace they make up for in size and graft; they will look to slow the match through set pieces and take advantage of the lack of height our current #1, David Ospina, presents at these opportunities.

Arsenal, by contrast, and for the first time in several seasons, do not seem in particular danger of relegation from our own minimum standard: qualification for next season’s Champions League tournament via a top-four finish. Currently, we sit six points clear of 5th place Liverpool with this match to play and an additional game in hand. With another FA Cup final on the horizon and in a tight race for 2nd place with the two Manchester teams, Arsenal would be well minded to play with full professionalism to find a way through another team set out to stop us.

It’s tempting to believe that doing so against Hull might prove easier than in our last match vs. Chelsea. We must, however, bring a similar effort and not let our guard down, thinking Hull will be a pushover. Against Chelsea, and in other matches against stout defenders, notably AS Monaco in the Champions League, we’ve had trouble maintaining spacing and remaining patient in attack. I think we’ll go with a largely unchanged line-up but there must be a full commitment to using the entire pitch with players moving smartly to cover for others going central or forward in attack and then taking the chances as they are offered. High balls in to our focal point, CF Olivier Giroud, should be alternated with tighter combinations and balls to his feet. Most of all, our remaining attackers must keep running, chasing the loose balls and filling spaces to pounce on opportunities, while remaining committed to preventing Hull from moving with the ball in the other direction. Using the full backs and deeper lying midfielders with intelligence and an eye for getting back quickly will be key.

As such, my guess is that we’ll go with an unchanged line-up from the one used in our previous three league matches, though we may see early subs if Hull are able to frustrate us or if we fall behind. Ideally a couple of early goals might allow a chance to work in players coming off long-term injuries who might need a chance to prove themselves as the run-in continues.

First 11:

ars v hull May 15

Subs: Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Flamini, Wilshere, Welbeck, Walcott

As always, that’s just my best guess. Could Arsene Wenger, fearing a let down after the Chelsea match, ring the changes to perhaps suggest that nobody’s place is safe? I believe our ability to play a consistent group has been a key in our improved form this winter and into the spring. Still, given our reasonably secure position in the table, it may be time to start thinking more deeply about the future and give players a chance to contribute ahead of the Cup final, not to mention the summer transfer window. My hunch is that such rotation begins next week, at our home stadium, against a mid-table team with nothing to play for (Swansea).

My opinion, of course, matters exactly the same as other Gooners’, and not at all compared to Wenger’s. Other Gooners may have (very) different ideas: Please share yours. Hull away, I think, is an opportunity to further refine our solid balance between defending and attacking and continue to grow understanding and connection amongst our core group of players. Finishing as high up the table as possible is important, as is preparing in professional fashion for the FA Cup final and showing the best that Arsenal can be.

Go on then…
By: 17highburyterrace

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 134 Comments

PL Second, FA Cup, Bellerin, Le Coq & Gabriel: Progress!

Coquelin1

With the Chavs likely to crown themselves the new champions today, all cuddling up to their ‘inspirational’ king, John Terry – which tells you all you need to know about this season’s victors – the season feels a bit like fizzing out now.

We lost the title in the first half, but were simply awesome as soon as Giroud and Ozil became fully fit and Coquelin finally broke through his cocoon; and replacing Szczesny with the more focussed and calm Ospina also helped tremendously. Being the best team in the PL in 2015 is not enough to win the title, however. Against the grinders from West London a whole season of efficiency and consistency is required, and IF we have to endure another season of JM-led boring, boring Oilers – and let’s hope for the sake of the quality of the PL that the owner is getting bored himself with his ‘toy-master’ once more soon – we better shore up further our defence, as this is where the battle for the title is won…. unfortunately.

But this is stuff for the Summer, when we have to endure a football free 2.5 months or so. We have an exciting May left, with a fight for second place and winning another FA cup as the crowning moment. And if we manage to win it in style, we will also unofficially be crowned the most exciting team of the season as nobody, except those with Roman catenaccio DNA in their blood, is impressed with the Southern Oilers’s style of play. They started well but as soon as Bradford – what a fecking glorious result was that! – humiliated them in front of their own crowd, JM has gone back to his roots and true colours: a mortal can only flirt with immortality, after all.

We have a job to do this month and it will not be easy to keep winning and stay in front of the Manc teams. As MU showed yesterday, a lack of focus and finishing can be costly and the Hull game on Monday will be another battle for us. The FA cup final will also be tough as Villa have found a new lease of life under their former Spuds-manager; but we still have a very good chance to do both: finish second and claim the Cup. And if we do so, we will have made fantastic progress this season. Winning the FA cup last season was great but we were a bit fortunate with all those home fixtures; winning it this time round would represent a bigger achievement, especially after beating the recently silverware-deprived Mancs at OT fair and square.

I will be very happy if we finish second and win the FA cup; it would also be the perfect platform to go for the title and a third FA cup in a row, next season. What we should also be very pleased about, is the balance in the team and how we see the club’s strategy of improving the team through the means of: youth development, buying super quality, and replacing ageing players with experienced (PL/La Liga) players, succeed. No other top PL club gets this right anywhere near as Arsenal do it. Debuchy (despite his injury), Ospina and Gabriel have added experience and calm, Sanchez – the super quality signing – has been sensational (even though he is clearly, and understandably given the number of games played since the summer, out of form/tiring at the end of the season), and the emergence of Bellerin and Coquelin are huge bonuses.

We all love to see youngsters come through and the young Spaniard and Frenchman have fought themselves into our first team which is a tremendous achievement. Just imagine us adding one more Ozil/Alexis level quality signing in the summer and add one or two proven PL/La Liga performers and one or two more youth players coming through… and Jack being fit for a season…

But I am digressing again. Completing and finishing is hardest when already on the road to victory, and Wenger is right to demand focus of his team to keep momentum going and finalise this stage of our development. Let’s not forget that and we, as fans, have a role to play too. We are on the brink of progress and our biggest enemy is complacency. Let the cannon roar – Come on You Rip-Roaring Gunners: finish on a high and bring home the cup!

Here’s to a happy May for all Gooners! :)

By TotalArsenal.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Wow, I am agreeing with Souness (and not Thierry)!

B-NrItXIMAAHU_cHo

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about writing this kind of post for a couple of weeks now, but Thierry Henry’s comments after the Chelsea game on Sky Sports got me to do it.

He said that Arsenal have to buy 4 players to win the league – a goalkeeper, a centre-back, a holding midfielder and a world class striker.
He then asked Carragher whether he thought Giroud was the kind of striker that you can win the league with and both agreed on a no.
Graeme Souness pinched in and said that they have to buy players, but that it’s about finding the right ones. He added that the foundation was there in the stadium, the city, the money and the football.

Now, if I remember correctly, for the first time in my life I agree with something Souness said as a pundit. It is very easy to sit in that chair (or in the stands) and say Arsenal have to buy this player and that player while in reality it is incredibly difficult to just buy a player.

I want to touch on a couple of things which I think are vital concerning the progression of Arsenal Football Club.

Firstly, in order to buy new players, we need to get rid of a couple of players.
For me Podolski, Diaby, Flamini, Sanogo, Campbell, Miyachi have to go.
I also think that Theo Walcott has to be sold because what he offers is not worth the money we would have to pay him on a new deal.
Arteta and Rosicky should be kept as experienced players that can do a job every once and a while.
On the goalkeeping front I do not think that David Ospina is good enough to be our number one. However I have kind of lost faith in Szczesny over the last couple of months. One of the two should be kept as number two and Emilliano Martinez could be number three.

That gets me to incoming players.
I don’t agree with Thierry Henry that we need a centre back. Gabriel has been very promising every time he has featured and I hope he will play alongside Koscielny next season. Mertesacker should be the third man and Callum Chambers the future prospect.
I agree that we need a new goalkeeper but as Souness said, it is about finding the right one. I don’t think that Petr Cech is a good choice because of his age. The first name that comes to my mind is Bernd Leno, but I don’t want to stretch this point.
I also agree with Henry that we need another holding midfielder. But unlike most Arsenal supporters I don’t think that we need to find Patrick Viera reborn. We need someone that is a very good passer of the ball and can build-up the play. Of course he also needs to have defensive qualities, but if you understand how to create the game you also know how to stop your opponents from playing. For me the most obvious target is Sami Khedira because his contract expires at the end of the season. Schneiderlin is another that would suit us very well.
As for the world class striker everyone keeps talking about. Of course I would love to us buy a world class striker (who wouldn’t???), but it’s simply unrealistic. The best strikers already play at the best clubs all across Europe  and you can’t just prize them away, cause that’s not how transfer business works. (i.e. Agüero, Lewandowski, Benzema, Ibrahimovic, Costa, Suarez)
Also a striker has to fit into our playing style which Giroud obviously does quite well (by now).
To me it makes far more sense to buy more versatile players who can play up front, behind the striker or on the wing. I would rather see us go for players like Raheem Sterling, Pedro, Paulo Dybala or Roberto Firmino who are young (except for Pedro) but already have experience. They proved they can score and create goals and, most importantly, who fit our style of play.

This also brings me to my third point, which is tactical flexibility.
I believe that every good club should have their perfect system and game plan which they should try to impose on their opposition. BUT every club also needs to be very flexible tactically because your plan A doesn’t always work. There are a lot of different systems which have their advantages and disadvantages and we should be able to use them to our strength and adapt them to our opponents, which is why players that can play in 3 or 4 positions are key in the modern game.

In terms of general progression I find it rather difficult to judge from the outside, but concerning money I believe that the new TV deal and Champions League money will even the playing field for the big clubs. Meaning to attract new players you need to be able to offer more than just money. This is where Souness’ point fits perfectly. Arsenal is a global brand with one of the best stadiums in England, located in one of the best and most globalised cities in the entire world. We rightfully pride ourselves on the beautiful way we play and that we do everything with class. This package and the fact that we always play in the Champions League should be more than enough to attract sponsors, fans, new players and everything else that is needed to push us to the top.

My last point, which I am sad to make, is that it will be more and more difficult to integrate young players. Because of the general level that all of the top football clubs have reached only the very special young players will make it through. For others the road will always be to play for a lesser club first to gain valuable experience and to mature into a good player before at the age of 23 or older they will get their shot at the big club, like Thierry Henry himself.

So fellow Gooners, what did you make of those comments?
And more importantly, how do you see our club develop in the near future?

Written by: Nik

Posted in Uncategorized | 36 Comments