Friday 23 December 2011

In defence of Mertesacker / don't Bridge the gap

The criticism aimed at Per Mertesacker has intensified after his role in Aston Villa’s goal on Wednesday which is unfair.

I had my doubts about us bringing him in given his lack of pace but overall I think he has made a valuable contribution to stiffening up the back line since September.

The best thing about Mertesacker is that he looks happiest doing the dirty jobs. Nothing appears to give him more pleasure than making an awkward, off-balance block or sticking his head on the end of a striker’s boot if it means danger is averted.

That is something our other defenders – apart from Vermaelen – don’t offer in abundance. And it would be a shame if people don’t give him a break and it starts to become an issue that affects his game.

Arsenal fans have garnered a reputation in recent years for getting on players’ backs. I understand it is usually through frustration with talented players like Arshavin who do things you would only expect of a semi-professional. But it would be a shame if it becomes a regular habit and we make life uncomfortable for the BFG.

This is a German international with nearly 80 caps for his country – he knows what he’s doing. If nothing else, give him a break because he’s not Sebastien Squillaci. Rather, Mertesacker has an air of no-nonsense dependability about him, something the likes of Adams and Bould used to carry.

As for the game itself, we may look back on it come the end of the season and see it as the biggest bonus points of the season. It would have been palatable to take just one point from a game that featured a reshuffled defence, an absent defensive midfielder and a Villa side that was well up for a challenge. Instead we snatched all three.

It revives the winning momentum we’d gained over the past couple of months and gives us a good foundation for the rest of the Christmas period when we should realistically claim all nine more points available.

Don't Bridge that gap, Arsene
I pray the Wayne Bridge speculation is the work of an agent desperately looking for his next pay day. Why would Wenger take on a washed-up defender on loan, even in a dire emergency? This sounds like I’m leading up to a joke where Sol Campbell’s return a couple of years ago is the punchline. But it’s not, because by the time he came back Sol had slipped to ‘good’ having once been ‘brilliant’. Bridge was only ever been average and, on the evidence of his performance for West Ham against us last season, he’s dropped to ‘liability’.

Liverpool’s own goal
Kenny Dalglish has always loved to foment a sense that Liverpool suffer from some kind of conspiratorial injustice. Usually referees are his biggest target but this time he’s taking on the whole of football – free the Suarez One.

If an Arsenal player had been suspended for eight games, my first instinct – like Liverpool’s players and fans – would be to rally behind him. But then I’d like to think I’d also consider why he has been banned and I’d step back from championing the cause of someone found guilty of racially abusing an opponent.

Yes, Suarez’s case is based on hearsay evidence but, since we’re not talking about a player with an exemplary disciplinary record (as the victims of his proud goal-line handball, shoulder biting and one-finger salute will testify) the context changes.

I definitely wouldn’t Arsenal players and manager to stick up for their player so publicly and prominently by wearing t-shirts with his name and number on the back and taking every opportunity possible to speak out on his behalf. They could do what they want behind closed doors but by bringing their support into the public glare they’ve made a mistake. One that I wouldn’t be disappointed to see lead to more disciplinary action.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Drawing strength from defeat

Manchester City 1 Arsenal 0
It isn’t often nowadays that I agree with Arsene’s summary of a match but his judgement on the Man City performance was spot on – encouraging, but we needed points as well as encouragement.

The key difference between the two sides was our inability to convert good opportunities into chances.

Too often Gervinho and Ramsey would make a bad choice or fail to execute after making the right decision, leaving Van Persie lacking ammo. From recollection he only had one real chance while Aguero had several – if we could have carved out the same number perhaps we would have got a point or more.

In fairness to Man City I thought they defended well and Kompany and Zabaleta, in particular, locked down their left side and allowed Walcott virtually no room for manoeuvre.

The immediate impact, which again Wenger admitted, is that any faint hope of a title challenge is all but mathematically snuffed out with the defeat.

But there is no reason why the team can’t still draw strength from the performance. Despite fielding a defence which required yet another rejig after Djourou became the latest injury casualty, we hung on in there against a side that has been blowing away other opponents.

At times we almost stretched to snapping point as we chased an equaliser a little too desperately but overall we showed more resilience than we have in other big away games in recent years. It is something we have shown consistently now for a few months – perhaps coaching and organisational changes have been made and are having an effect, though we shouldn’t overlook how big a factor a fit Thomas Vermaelen is.

Anyway, now any dreams of the title are over, the target is clear – fourth place and a Champions League place. We need to start another run of wins quickly, hopefully with the trip to Villa tonight. The absence of the suspended Song, coupled with a depleted defence, makes it tricky but we can’t afford to let the mini-revival go to waste.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Can Arsenal continue to surprise / Podolski and Reus

Our run of form in the past few weeks has been reminiscent of a championship-chasing team. Focused, defensively sound and potent in attack when we need to be, we’ve been churning out the league victories with satisfying regularity.

Today, in Man City, we face the best team we’ve come across all season and it will be an acid test for what we should hope for in the rest of the campaign.

Part of me knows this remodelled Arsenal has not faced a team of this quality during our mini resurgence and it could provide a harsh reality check. Part me of me also knows that we are weakened by Santos’ absence and the likely re-shuffling of defenders it will cause.

And yet part of me also has a belief that the maturity now being shown by the team and the desire to keep winning – together with the body blow that Man City took in losing for the first time – may be enough to spring a surprise. There’s been a definite change in the team compared to the gloom I was expecting us to descend into after the Man U, Blackburn and Spurs defeats.

Winning this match would suddenly make a title challenge an outside possibility, closing the gap to top spot to just six points. I can’t convince myself we have enough quality in depth to maintain our form until May but a victory would feel like a salvage job of some of the points thrown away at the start of the season, before our transfer deadline deals were made.

Overhauling Man City would involve turning their blip of the Chelsea defeat into a wobble and watching it grow into a crisis. With the array of talent they possess and their Invincibles-like one-touch passing style, they look certain to claim the title otherwise. At least we don’t have to worry about ensuring the unbeaten record of the Invincibles’ will remain unique in the history books for another year.

All a defeat today would cost us is ground in the race for fourth – you can’t imagine there being any lasting mental damage from losing to the title favourites – and confirm that is the height of our ambitions for the remaining 22 games (at least five losses before Christmas is not the record of champions-elect).

A win followed by a decent Christmas and some January reinforcements would make life much more interesting, though.

Podolski is not the German we need
Talking of the January sales, I was glad Wenger gave short shrift to the possibility of a move for Lukas Podolski when he was asked about it on Friday. Podolski has never really impressed consistently and reminds me of a less skilful Jose Antonio Reyes – very quick and with a powerful shot but lacking in guile and craft. We’ve already got one left foot cannon up front and we don’t need another (unless Van Persie doesn’t sign that contract…).

The Bundesliga striker I’d prefer is Marko Reus of Borussia Moenchengladbach. It is usual for the best of the lesser German clubs to be picked up by Bayern Munich but we’ve been linked with him quietly and from what I’ve seen of him he would be a great addition to the front line. Small, quick, technical and adaptable, he represents the new type of player that is favoured in the modern 4-3-3 formation – not a striker, not a winger, not an ‘in the hole’ man, just an attacker who creates and scores.

If we really do want to make a title push a couple of players of his quality are required, regardless of the outcome today.

Thursday 8 December 2011

All aboard for a European tour, 2005/06-style

Overnight, our chances of achieving something in Europe have risen markedly. With the surprise departure of Man U from the Champions League, as well as the more expected loss of Man City, two teams who were more than capable of knocking us out have left the competition.

All right, I know I shouldn’t get carried away since the two favourites, Barcelona and Real Madrid, look to be head and shoulders above the rest. Were we to face either of them over two legs I couldn’t predict anything for us except more disappointment.

But with a kind draw and a continued improvement in defence, we look capable of repeating our run to the final in 2005/06, hopefully this time going one step better.

The similarities can be seen in our league performance so far – after 14 games back then we had struggled to adjust to the loss of our captain and collected 26 points, winning eight and losing four, the same as today.

The main difference between the two campaigns was that we had a much meaner defence back then.

But over the last few matches the current unit has looked increasingly solid. Whether it can replicate the string of clean sheets that led us to Paris is doubtful but with the Manchester representatives now plying their trade on Channel 5 on a Thursday night I’m a lot more confident.