Southampton preview: Rotation ahoy and Diaby set to return

Southampton preview: Rotation ahoy and Diaby set to return

Capital One Cup action tonight against high-flying Southampton and it’s a game in which I expect the manager will rotate his team quite heavily.

With confirmation that Mathieu Debuchy is out for at least three months and Nacho Monreal won’t be available again until after the October Interlull, the manager can’t afford to risk his senior defenders for this one.

Nevertheless, I’d expect Calum Chambers to start as his youth means he’s got more recovery juice than the likes of Mertesacker and Koscielny. Hector Bellerin should start at right back with Isaac Hayden the second central defender, but who exactly plays at left back is a bit of a puzzle.

He could play Gibbs but he’s not the most robust player of all time so I think we might see Arsene get his Coq out, or play Mathieu Flamini in there. In midfield there are loads of options with a fit again Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere all candidates, while up front Joel Campbell and Lukas Podolski will get a chance to impress.

There are other youngsters like Chuba Akpom and Semi Ajayi in the squad as well, and we’ll see a first start for Colombian keeper David Ospina, so there’s a real Capital One Cup feel to it. Despite the changes though, the manager isn’t taking Southampton lightly, and was full of praise of them pre-game, saying:

They are miracle workers at Southampton. Everybody expected them to collapse, they lost the spine of their team, they lost their manager and they bounced back in such a strong way. I must say that when I saw them against Liverpool on the opening day of the season when they lost, I thought straight away that this team is very strong and very good.

Ronald Koeman has a great experience as a coach. He has done a great job.

I know it’s early days but they are second in the league at the moment, and when you consider the players they sold this summer, then you have to say that’s impressive. It should make for an interesting game this evening, with players like Campbell and Podolski looking to catch the eye to convince the manager they’re worth of more playing time, and there’s a return for Abou Diaby who made his last appearance for us on May 11th 2014 but whose previous game came in March 2013.

I’ve never quite understood why he’s been the subject of so much aggressive stick from certain fans. I think he’s been rather unfairly lumped into the Denilson/Bendtner bracket, a symbol of the failed post-Highbury move policy. Of course his injury record is terrible, and you can legitimately question the decision to extend his contract, but it’s not as if he’s some kind of Winston Bogarde who has been happy to sit around and pick up his wages.

All he’s ever wanted to do is play football for us and I think if people knew the extent of his tribulations and how hard he’s tried, they’d be a lot more sympathetic. He’s had countless operations, consultations and has considered retirement more than once, but his desire to play (and play for us) kept him going. He doesn’t pick the team, he doesn’t make the decisions about his contract, and when you consider most of his issues stem from that brutal injury he picked up at Sunderland, I think what we did as a club should be commended, not criticised.

The issue for me was how long we left it to understand that having him as a player we were somewhat reliant on was misguided. Now, he’s a bonus player. If fit somebody who has qualities that this midfield can often do with and the manager has praised his outlook during the difficult times:

Diaby is a giant, mentally. To do what he has done, with the severe injuries he has had,  he comes back every time, is dedicated and he deserves a lot of respect. I’m a huge believer in his quality and I’m sad as well that he couldn’t show it more. If there is some justice, the future will be much better for him.

Whether that future is with us remains to be seen. He’s got less than 12 months on his current deal and at this point it’s practically impossible to justify giving him a new one, but maybe between now and May he can make a contribution on the pitch and if he does, that ought to be appreciated rather than mocked.

As for the game tonight, I’m not sure if we’ll have a live blog because it’s not on any TV channel I have but if I can find a decent stream then we’ll do something.

A quick plug again for this week’s Arsecast Extra in which we look back at the hilarity of the weekend just gone, and answer questions about Calum Chambers propensity for yellow cards, the form of Aaron Ramsey and we discover exactly what’s going on with Gervinho’s non-spaghetti hair. Listen here.

You’ll also notice (if you listen) that we’ve announced a live Arsecast Extra recording taking place on October 6th in the Union Chapel bar on Upper Street. Tickets are quite limited and go on sale tomorrow (£10), so I’ll provide details of how to get them then, but it’ll be a nice evening with the usual Arsecast Extra waffle, a Q&A, a special guest and, of course, a bar so we can all have a nice glass of BabyCham together.

So, put the date in your diary, October 6th – just after the Chelsea game so we should have plenty to discuss … *cough*

Right, that’s that. Hopefully we’ll have a live blog for you later on, if not more tomorrow as we look back on the Capital One Cup.

Super funny Sunday caps a good Arsenal weekend

Super funny Sunday caps a good Arsenal weekend

Morning all, welcome to a brand new week after what turned out to be a quite excellent weekend for us, all things told.

Having done what we needed to do at Villa Park on Saturday, Sunday brought a bounty of riches. And by riches I mean hilarious things to point and laugh at. Firstly, Man Utd were 2-0 up, then 3-1 up against Leicester but ended up down to 10 men and losing 5-3. They’re a bit like us in that they’re a very top heavy squad but at least the defenders we have are decent.

They lost most of their back four in the summer and have struggled to find any defensive balance this season. And I hope they keep struggling. Fair play to Leicester, they got a bit of luck with the penalty to make it 3-2 but all in all it was a laugh a minute romp of self-destruction from United. It’s also amusing to think their captain is a man who twice blackmailed the club into giving him extortionate wages and who has all the leadership skills of a special needs lemming. When the going gets tough, Rooney gets his agent to get him a pay rise.

Then, West Brom beat Sp*rs 1-0 at White Hart Lane. I haven’t yet seen any of this but conceptually, factually and any other -lly it’s something that can just be enjoyed from the scoreline alone. As they’re our next Premier League opponents there’s part of me that thinks they’ll be working extra hard this week to make up for it, but in the very short term it’s point and laugh time.

Finally, Man City and Chelsea both dropped a couple of points after a pretty tedious game in the Middle Eastlands. Down to 10 men and a goal down with just 10 minutes to go, the fact that Frank Lampard denied Chelsea the three points is pretty much as funny as it gets. His ‘I’m not celebrating’ face was funny. As was the fact the Chelsea fans applauded him onto the field and he then served them all a delicious bowl of steaming hot turd pie.

There were also some quite amusing comments from Manuel Pellegrini about Chelsea’s approach as he likened them to Stoke, but what I enjoyed most about them is that the Man City manager has, in the last few weeks, exposed himself as a really quite dislikeable bloke. He seemed to be a respectful, decent gentleman but he’s up there with the best of them now. I’m happy for him to pick fights with Mourinho, van Gaal and all the rest now. A little more league spice is never a bad thing.

So, from our point of view we rest our legs for next weekend while the manager has to look ahead to tomorrow night’s Capital One Cup game with Southampton (sitting second in the league, having conceded fewer goals than every other team at this point). Obviously he’s going to have to rest and rotate, but we’ll touch on that in greater detail tomorrow.

After his opening goal for the club, Arsene Wenger had some interesting things to say about Danny Welbeck. As we live in the age of fatuous comparison, it was asked of the manager if he could develop the former United man like he did with Thierry Henry, and to be fair, there are some vague similarities to be made as both arrived at the club having spent time out wide.

But Henry, let’s remember, was singularly unconvinced he could be a central striker whereas Welbeck has been itching to get the chance. His goal and assist against Villa were obviously eye-catching but so too was the way he used the ball. Only one of this passes didn’t find a yellow shirt and a 97% pass completion rate is very high for a centre-forward.

While suggesting that Welbeck could certainly use Henry as inspiration, Wenger said:

He has a good mentality, good physical potential, good technical potential, he contributes to our team play because he doesn’t lose the ball up front and those are important qualities

And on his finishing:

I think as well he has played at Manchester United in the position wide for the last two or three years, never through the middle. Then you lose a little bit of that instinct to score … which is a little animalistic. You need to always be in the middle and wait for your chance to kill the opponent. On the flank you have less of that responsibility.

Yet from everything we’ve heard from and about Welbeck, he’s been craving the responsibility that playing centrally brings. It’s still very early days, of course, but his performance on Saturday was very promising – especially after he’d botched a couple of good chances in midweek against Dortmund. He didn’t let it affect him or his confidence and that’s a good sign. Fingers crossed it was the first of many displays like that.

Finally for today, in the wake of Arsenal’s financial results being announced last week, the incomparable Swiss Ramble takes a look under the hood and breaks it all down. I’m a man of words, so numbers, especially ones this size, make my head spin, but you won’t find a better, more understandable analysis of our finances anywhere else. Go read.

And that’s just about that. James and I will be recording the Arsecast Extra for you a little later on this morning. Feel free to send your questions to us on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog using the hashtag #arsecastextra as we look back on the weekend’s events and probably laugh a bit at the other teams trials and tribulations. It’d be rude not to.

Until later.

Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal: Three-sy does it

Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal: Three-sy does it

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Well, that was much more like it. Villa were blown away with a four minute spell of awesomeness in the first half, were allowed no way of getting back into the game, and we took home a very valuable, confidence boosting three points.

It looked as if Arsene Wenger tweaked his system slightly, playing Ramsey closer to Arteta, and Mesut Ozil more central and we reaped the rewards of that. There was still something of a post-Dortmund hangover in the opening period though. Our passing and movement was better, but we had Wojciech Szczesny to thank and blame in equal measure for keeping the score level.

In the opening minutes he scuffed a kick which allowed Fabian Delph a shot on goal which the Pole saved, but which gave the home side a few minutes of pressure from a couple of corners. But in the 23rd minute he pulled off a fantastic save to prevent Villa going ahead.

Calum Chambers gave away a free kick on our right hand side, and the defence let the ball sail over their heads like a pair of eejits who traveled all the way from London to Birmingham but got so drunk before kick-off they had to head home before the game even started. Perhaps Ciaran Clark should have done better with the header but Szczesny spread himself in a Schmeichel-esque starfish way, kept the ball out, and on that moment the game turned.

A few minutes later we were ahead. After some patient build-up, Ramsey fed Welbeck who spotted the run of Mesut Ozil and picked him out with a beautiful ball behind Senderos. The German took a couple of touches and simply rolled by the ball past Brad Guzan (who looks like a young version of the old vampire from the original Salem’s Lot movie).

Ozil then returned the favour a minute later. Fed down the inside left channel, he fizzed across the perfect ball for Welbeck to side-foot home from close range for his first Arsenal goal. If you could have chosen the goalscorers today they’d have been top of the list. Two guys who badly needed to produce for various reasons, and they duly obliged. Two clinical finishes, but each with a perfect pass to make the chance in the first place.

With Villa shell-shocked, we went 3-0 up when Sissokho diverted a mishit Gibbs shot into his own net, and inside those four minutes the game was done and dusted. Before the half-time break Ozil had a chance to make it 4-0 while Ramsey lashed a second shot of the day just wide from the same position.

The second half was, let’s be honest, quite dull but I loved it. Every single second. Too often the second half is about wanting Arsenal to respond, to pick up their game, to do more, to be better, but this was simply about controlling the rest of the game and we did that brilliantly. To some it might have been boring or tedious, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching 45 minutes of football without panic or fear.

We bossed the game in terms of possession and territory, and what made it so much fun to watch was the way we did that. We implemented a high press which Villa just couldn’t cope with. Every time they had the ball we harried and chased and forced them into an error which returned the ball to us. At which point we simply passed it around and ground them into submission.

It was great to watch Welbeck drop deep from his forward position to pressure a home player on the ball, just as it was to see Mikel Arteta push up from midfield into their half to do just the same. There was some suggestion afterwards that Villa were suffering because their players had been ill, but regardless of that we obviously had made a plan and executed it perfectly.

They didn’t have a sniff of goal, we prevented them from building any danger, and when you look at the stats and see that in the entire game Agbonlahor completed just four passes (and three of them were from kick-offs), it tells you how effectively we neutralised them.

Afterwards, Arsene said:

It was the response we needed after Tuesday. I believe that the team played well and after that it’s easier for everybody.

He also touched on Mesut Ozil:

I was very pleased he got the goal as quickly as possible. It was important for him to score.

And Danny Welbeck:

I think he had a very good performance today because he kept the ball. Ball retention is important and he had a good all-round game for a central striker.

I think it’s a game from which we can take a lot. Villa had been unbeaten until yesterday, and very solid, we tore them apart in that blinding spell and then worked very hard to stay on top of the game. After a goal and an assist there’ll be less spotlight on Ozil and hopefully that’s the kind of performance that will help spark his season, while the same goes for Welbeck.

Another game without a goal might have increased the pressure on him. Instead he made a decisive contribution – like Ozil an assist and a goal – and it’s good to see two players who are going to be hugely important for us this season look like they’re on the same wavelength.

Overall, a good day out for us and a performance which is much more like the Arsenal we all want to see. Enjoy it.

Till tomorrow.

Aston Villa preview: find the defensive balance to spark the attack

Aston Villa preview: find the defensive balance to spark the attack

The requirement today, obviously, is three Premier League points and a showing much more like the one against Man City than Dortmund.

I suspect it might need some tinkering with the team, but the man over whom the largest question marks remain got the full backing of the manager yesterday. Mesut Ozil’s form has been in the spotlight over the last week or two and it came into sharp focus after a limp display in Dortmund (although he was hardly alone in that).

Speaking at his press conference yesterday, the manager came out swinging in defence of the German, warning against scapegoating him, and urged some patience:

Why should he be a scapegoat? For what? We lost one game since the beginning of April. We all go through periods where we are less good. We are a union, players, supporters and directors. Fans need to be patient.

He then said that if he had to do it all over again, he would, and denied that it’s where Ozil is being played that’s the issue:

I would pay the money again. Of course. Zidane went to Real Madrid for £82m and he played on the left. There was never a debate and he had to play there. Because in the middle they had Raul and Ronaldo he made room and played on the left. When you have the ball you play where you want and go where you want.

My feeling, and I’ve said this before, is that it’s an issue of form and confidence. I think a fully fit, fully confident, in-form Ozil could certainly play from the left – remembering he’s got the freedom to go where he wants with the ball – very effectively. It’s whether or not that’s the best place for him when he’s struggling and if that’s having an impact on him regaining his form.

I think it’s worth remembering that this is an Arsenal team that hasn’t really played well this season and for me that’s a much bigger issue than the trials of one individual. Yes, he cost £42.5m and there’s an expectation that comes with that, but surely it’s much more important to sort out our collective problems rather than get the knives out for one man.

My feeling is that we need to go back to basics a bit. The manager spoke yesterday about the team’s system/tactics, and said:

We have to find a balance between attacking and defending.

Right now it’s clear that balance is not right at either end. Not only have we failed to click as an attacking force, we look defensively more suspect than we did for the majority of last season.

Yes, we had those big defeats away but it wasn’t for no reason that people were quick to laud the partnership between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, while Wojciech Szczesny was the joint winner of the Golden Glove for the most clean sheets in the Premier League.

So, maybe to find the way forward, we need to look back at what we did in the late part of 2012. After being torn apart at White Hate Lane – the latest in a number of games in which we looked defensively abject – we changed tack.

Always an attacking side under Wenger, we resorted to a ‘First, we don’t lose’ approach, and it paid dividends. We ground out enough victories to secure a top four place at the expense of Sp*rs, and much of what made it effective was the midfield balance provided by Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey.

The whole team was more switched on defensively, but Ramsey complemented Arteta’s calm, assured distribution perfectly. He was the non-stop running, tackling, pressing machine and when the 2013-14 season began, Arsenal, based on their new-found defensive platform, were a better outfit from an attacking point of view also.

Now, after the goalscoring strides he took in the 2013-14, Ramsey is playing much further forward, thus leaving Arteta, or Flamini, more exposed. If Ramsey were to drop a little deeper and play from there, he would offer more protection to the holding midfielder.

We can complain all we want about the lack of signing a defensive midfielder, but there’s nothing we can do about it until January at the earliest. Wenger has to find a solution with the players he’s got, and I think the blueprint is right in front of him.

While you don’t want to negate Ramsey’s attacking instincts, or indeed his quality in the final third, it’s not as you’re saying he can’t cross the halfway line, just be a little more conservative in his position. At the other end, Danny Welbeck, Alexis, Lukas Podolski, Mesut Ozil and, of course, the returning Theo Walcott can take up the slack and are all capable of the goals and creativity Ramsey brings.

The back four need the protection to give Arsenal the confidence to function as an attacking force. Ensuring Arteta or Flamini aren’t exposed as the full backs push on (and we know they’ll push on), will help provide that, and Aaron Ramsey is the man best suited to that job right now in my opinion.

As for today, it’d be just like the manager to back Ozil to the hilt and then ‘rest’ him, but despite Villa’s impressive start to the season, I’d like to think we can respond. Find a bit more of what we did last Saturday and not so much of what we did (or didn’t do), on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, the financials have been released. It’s all very healthy as you’d imagine, and in fairness there has been considerable (if not complete) investment in the team this summer. We spent more money than we have in … well … ever, but as you look at the figures it’s just impossible for the club to justify the decision to raise season ticket prices by 3%.

I’m not a season ticket holder, so there are others who will write on this from a much better position, but I have friends who are and who feel the pinch every time they have to fork out more. It always seemed a stretch that with new commercial and TV revenue streams – and very large ones at that – that a price rise was acceptable in any way. These figures demonstrate it’s just not.

Right then, that’s about that. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to yesterday’s Arsecast, then you’ll find it right here. And if you can’t see the match later, or if you’d just like to follow it with us as you watch, we’ve got full live blog coverage for you this afternoon.

Check back later on to find a post with all the team news and the details, or you can just bookmark our default live blog page and updates will begin automatically.

Until then.

Time to rotate

Time to rotate

Morning all, a quick one for you today as I have to go talk into a microphone very early.

“Come on down to Crazy Mick’s Good Time Right Back Who Can Play Centre-Half Emporium! The prices are only famous …”, or something.

As is the norm (Norm!) after a game like the one we saw on Tuesday, there’s much talk of picking ourselves up and reacting against Villa on Saturday. These stories are part and parcel of the media landscape now, and there’s no point getting worked-up about them.

Mikel Arteta was straight up about what happened on Tuesday, saying:

I am very disappointed because we knew their strengths, what we had to avoid and what we did was encourage them to play their game. We have to analyse what we have done wrong and try to improve.

He then analyses it perfectly, saying:

We encouraged them to do that by giving the ball away so many times in very difficult positions.

Job done. Sometimes you have a bad game, all the analysis in the world won’t change that, but as we mentioned the fact that this has happened in our first big (sorry Everton) away game of the season is the real worry (and even at Goodison there were signs of this brittleness).

Perhaps one of the issues was the lack of rotation in the squad. Dortmund ran further and faster than us, but apart from Hector Bellerin and Mikel Arteta in for Flamini, we played the very same team that went the distance with Man City on the Saturday. Dortmund’s game the previous weekend, admittedly against inferior opposition, allowed them to rest the likes of Immobile, Bender and Aubameyang, and the way the two forwards proved so effective against us surely was informed by that.

I have no doubt that if we’d been playing the Premier League equivalent of Freiburg we might have seen some rotation, but when you play City you have to play your best team. Facing Dortmund means the temptation is obviously great to keep faith in those players, but the physical side of the game is important too and that was certainly area in which we were found wanting.

Would playing the likes of Tomas Rosicky, Santi Cazorla and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have really diminished us in terms of footballing quality? It’s hard to argue it would after seeing the players we selected perform the way they did. I mean, I get the idea of playing players into match fitness and form, but that was a decision which looked counter-productive in the end.

Oxlade-Chamberlain himself has been talking about his desire to play, saying:

I feel good in myself and when I get told to play I will be chomping at the bit to help the team. That is up to the boss to decide when that is but I will be ready.  I know what this game is all about. I am a young lad in a very good Arsenal squad and understand that.

Then, he goes on to hint that the players on the bench might be a solution to the slight rut into which our form has fallen this season:

I want to play as much as I can but I have bought into the idea of what our team wants to do this season and that means it will need all of us to pull our weight to start games or come off the bench. We have to be 100 per cent focused for when our chances come.

I think those chances have to come at Villa Park on Saturday. Between form and the fact it’ll be our third game in a week, we’re going to have to change things around a little bit. And having seen Oxlade-Chamberlain’s drive and energy have a small impact against Dortmund on Wednesday, I’d be very tempted to start him.

Wilshere’s ankle is a worry at this moment in time, as is the form of Aaron Ramsey. The manager has long said that he sees the Ox as a central-midfield player, and his very best performances for the club have come in that position. I’d be very tempted to give him a run there on Saturday, freshening up the team and reminding others that their place shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The other issue is the system we’re playing, which really doesn’t seem to be working, but whether or not the manager is going to stick with it remains to be seen. The change has been subtle but it’s made a team which, for the most part last season, looked solid and coherent look distinctly uncomfortable and has served more to exacerbate our weakness than bring out of the best of our strengths.

Perhaps it’s a question of getting used to it, hence the fact we’ve yet to click this season, but I do wonder if reverting to the way we set up last year might be the best option at this point. Anyway, no doubt that’s stuff the manager will be asked in his press conference this week and to which he’ll give a straight bat answer, it’s definitely something he should be considering.

Right, that’s yer lot. Tim Stillman’s column will be here later. News throughout the day on Arseblog News. More here tomorrow including the Arsecast.