Arsenal survive a Friday fright to get the season going

While there was something unfamliar about starting the season on a Friday night, there was something all too familiar about the way the Gunners capitulated on the opening day. In recent years, Aston Villa, West Ham and Liverpool have all walked away from the Emirates with three points in the first game as a result of some pretty ropey Arsenal defending. It looked as if Leicester City would do the same this season as they knocked in three cheap goals, but Arsene Wenger threw all of his attackers onto the pitch and the Gunners salvaged a 4-3 win with two late goals.
While the nature of the goals conceded is a concern, I’m inclined to write the game off as an unusual one because of the back three fielded by Arsenal. With Per Mertesacker’s face wound keeping him out, Rob Holding was joined in the back three by Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac. While those three had done a decent job at Wembley against Chelsea in Mertesacker’s absence, the lack of leadership and experience was a problem. Nacho Monreal is a superb footballer but is much more suited to play on the left of the three rather than in the middle. Two set-pieces and sloppy play from Granit Xhaka allowed Leicester to expose these frailties.
But I’m not unduly worried because I’ll be staggered if that back three starts a game as a trio again this season. With Mertesacker and Gabriel to return from injury, Koscielny to return from suspension and Mustafi and Chambers to get up to full fitness, Arsene Wenger should have enough options to not have to resort to that combination again. The three will have big roles to play this season alongside others and in different positions, so hopefully the nightmare start defensively can be quickly forgotten.
One of those three, Sead Kolasinac still made a big impression on the game as he showed why he could be a great addition to the squad as a wing-back. The way he charged forward with regularity from centre-back arguably added to the chaos of the game, but it was effective. He looks perfectly suited to the wing-back role in Arsenal’s new system and is already achieved cult hero status, but he’s a cult hero who is a fine player as well.
While Kolasinac was a positive, Arsenal’s overall attacking game and the ability to change the match using the bench were the other big pluses to take from the match. The free big Bosnian contrasts well with Arsenal’s other new arrival in the summer with Alexandre Lacazette coming for a club record fee, and he got off to the perfect start by guiding Mohamed Elneny’s cross into the bottom corner in the second minute. The intensity and madness of the game will have been an eye-opener for the French striker in his first Premier League appearance, but he was able to contribute and didn’t look off-the-pace.
There was also a nice moment for Lacazette just after Arsenal scored to lead 4-3. In a break in play, he just took a few seconds to just take in the crowd noise as the whole ground sang about Arsenal being by far the greatest team. He’s played in some big stadiums and in some hot atmospheres, but Lacazette looked slightly in awe at the fans in the North Bank and made sure he soaked up the then raucous atmosphere in the stadium.
Along with Lacazette scoring in the first half, Danny Welbeck bagged the equaliser to level it up at 2-2 before half-time, with the assist from Kolasinac. 
After going behind again in the second-half, Arsene Wenger gambled. It’s not often you see the manager make such a drastic change during a game, especially when the defecit was only one goal, but with 25 minutes to go he decided to throw the kitchen sink at Leicester, except the kitchen sink was a bearded Frenchman and a Welsh wizard. While the back three were already in some slightly unusual positions, the switch to get Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey on the field meant an even more unconventional back four emerged with a right winger at right-back (Oxlade-Chamberlain), two left-backs in the centre (Monreal and Kolasinac) and a right-back at left-back (Bellerin). The potential for that to backfire and Wenger’s tactical nous to be severely questioned was massive, but somehow it worked.
Alongside Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey had a big influence on the game as he made late runs into the box and had the license to bomb forward and cause problems. When his chance came with eight minutes to go, he controlled Xhaka’s excellent pass with a deft touch before firing past the goalkeeper. I’m really optimistic of Aaron Ramsey having a big season for Arsenal, and it’s a good sign to see him score early in the campaign. All Arsenal fans have seen what can happen when you get a fit and fully confident Aaron Ramsey, and with Xhaka adding the control to the midfield, the Welshman can be afforded a freer role, one which he excels in regularly for Wales. 
Having equalised, it was left to the other substitute to win it for Arsenal. Xhaka’s corner was superbly headed past Schmeichel by Olivier Giroud via the underside of the bar after the Frenchman had wrestled off Harry Maguire and Wes Morgan to be first to the ball. I can’t emphasise enough just how good that header was given the pressure he was under. He was stronger than the defenders and managed to generate accuracy and power despite two players trying to pull him down. 
After the game, Arsene Wenger said that he did open the door for Giroud to leave if he wanted to because of the competition for places up front. I was surprised the manager did that because of the variation Giroud brings to Arsenal’s attack, but was even more surprised (and relieved!) that the striker didn’t take up that offer and decided to stay and fight for his place. As proved once again on Friday, he offers Arsenal something completely different to anyone in the squad. No other Arsenal attacker could realistically have scored the winner in the manner that Giroud did. With the defenders tiring after chasing the likes of Lacazette and Welbeck, Giroud is the perfect man to bring on and give them a completely different problem to think about.
With Lacazette, Welbeck, Ramsey and Giroud all scoring, it was great to see the team spread the goal-scoring load without Alexis Sanchez. Too often in recent seasons it has felt like the Chilean was the only player likely to stick one in the net, but even with him unavailable on Friday, there were dangerous players coming at Leicester from all angles. It leaves Arsene Wenger with some tricky selection decisions in attacking areas, but to have so many varied options off the bench gives me a lot of hope that even if the defending is a bit dodgy, this isn’t going to be an Arsenal team that lacks goals this season.
It was a serious scare for Arsenal on Friday, but with all the attention on the excellent contributions of new players to the team, it was an old hero, with his good looks and magnificent beard, who entered stage left and reminded everyone of his immense value to the club.

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Yes, it was that good

I thought that waiting a few days might mean I was able to write about the FA Cup final in a more considered manner. In the euphoria of such a victory, it’s easy to work in hyperbole and over-exaggerate something as the greatest or the best. But four days after Arsenal’s epic 2-1 victory over Chelsea, it doesn’t feel like heat-of-the-moment exaggeration to say that it was one of Arsenal’s best ever FA Cup final performances. It really was as good as it seemed on Saturday.
Before the semi-finals, it looked like a long-shot for Arsenal to win the cup knowing they’d have to beat two of Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea. But playing at Wembley and playing in this tournament does something to Arsenal. Whereas they often look nervous and uncomfortable in big European games or big away games in the Premier League, in the FA Cup, Arsenal play like the top dogs. Recent successes in the competition has given the team a belief that they’ll find a way, especially at Wembley. There’s no scrambled minds thinking about European qualification or away goals, it’s just straight knockout. While Arsenal can be incredibly frustrating, on a given day they have the quality to beat anyone.
And that anyone on Saturday was the team chasing the double, the team that are the deserved champions of England and the team that has perfected the in-vogue 3-4-3 formation. It may have only finished 2-1, but the score-line flattered Chelsea. Arsenal were dominant and aggressive and imposed their game on the opposition, making it impossible for the Blues to get into a rhythm during the 90 minutes. The lauded N’golo Kante struggled to get near Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, while Eden Hazard did a Theo Walcott-esque disappearing act.
Everyone who played was superb. Everyone did a job defensively and put a shift in, but equally looked vibrant and lively in attack. All of Arsene Wenger’s big selection decisions paid off with Danny Welbeck up front and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain filling at left-wing back. But the biggest (quite literally) was to pick Per Mertesacker at centre-back. When everyone played so brilliantly, it seems almost unfair to single out one man, but the BFG is deserving of some serious praise.
Even a big Mertesacker fan, like myself, was concerned about him starting the cup final. Forget mentally, it was going to be a huge challenge physically for him to last the whole game having not started a match for 13 months and having played less than 40 minutes in the whole season. He was also starting in a system he’d never appeared in before, alongside a youngster he’d not started a game with before and a left-back doing a job at centre-half. All of this just makes his performance even more remarkable and, for me, makes it one of the greatest performances by a captain in any FA Cup final. His reading of the game was first class, his stifling of Diego Costa went a long way to blunting Chelsea’s attack, and his organisation was vital in a make-shift back-line. I was so chuffed for him as he is someone who has always been an easy target for unfair criticism. He’s a brilliant defender and a brilliant man to have as club captain.
Along with everyone playing well, Arsenal were going to need a bit of luck to go their way to win the game, and it did with the opening goal. Anthony Taylor got the offside decision right, but there was definitely a strong hint of handball in the way Alexis Sanchez blocked Kante’s clearance before finishing. Anthony Taylor then unexpectedly endeared himself to Arsenal fans even more by correctly sending off Victor Moses for two yellow cards, the second coming for a dreadful dive. Having Anthony Taylor as the referee was another reason for a lack of confidence going into the game given some of his previous performances refereeing Arsenal, but overall he was excellent on the biggest day of his career.
Despite playing so well, Arsenal missed some great chances and having been pegged back to 1-1 against ten men, could have been overcome by nerves and fear again. But they roared back into the lead brilliantly with 11 minutes to go. Another one of Arsene Wenger’s decisions paid off as Olivier Giroud came straight onto the field and chipped a perfect cross across the box with his first touch. Aaron Ramsey arrived perfectly to nod the ball into the net and spark bedlum in the red half of Wembley. It was one of those moments that will live forever with every Arsenal fan that was there. And for someone who is often criticised, it’s hard to complain at a player who has now scored two winners in FA Cup finals. Take a bow, Aaron.
The win secured a place in the record books for Arsene Wenger as he became the most successful manager in FA Cup history. Seven FA Cup wins is a ridiculous achievement, and one that I can’t see being beaten for a very long time. It also moved Arsenal ahead of Manchester United as the most successful team in the FA Cup ever with 13 trophies. It might not be the Premier League or the Champions League, but the FA Cup matters. It has given me the best moments of the season as a fan with trips to Preston and Southampton alongside the Wembley games. Being a football fan is also about making memories, and there’s no doubting that Arsenal fans made a damn good one on Saturday, and that was because of the FA Cup.
Of course since the final, there has been confirmation that Arsene Wenger is staying at the club for another two years. After the defeats to Bayern Munich, West Brom and Crystal Palace, Arsenal looked like a broken team. Unless Arsene Wenger ever writes his reveal-all autobiography, which would probably be the greatest football book of all time, we’ll never truly know what happened in that period that derailed the team so dramatically and so damagingly. It looked like he had reached the point of no return, and while I was desperate for him to be able to turn it round, I couldn’t see how that was possible and, for the first time, felt like this summer could be the right time for a parting of ways.
But football changes quickly, and after the magnificence of the performance on Saturday and the upturn in form, albeit too late to get into the Champions League, Arsene Wenger staying seems like a decent option. Certainly in terms of trusting the board to actually have the know-how to pick a successor, Wenger staying is definitely the better option. For fans of other clubs moaning that Arsenal don’t know how lucky they are as the vast majority of clubs would kill to win three FA Cups in four years, they’re right. It does seem ridiculous for fans to moan about the manager in that situation. But for those who follow the club closely and passionately, the club is in a unique and baffling situation. Nowhere else at the top level does the manager possess so much power in the footballing side of the club, and isn’t really held accountable by those supposedly in power above him. For the size of club that Arsenal are and the money the club has coming in, they have under-achieved this season, and haven’t made any genuine progress in the league for years now. It’s a situation that has been allowed to fester and came to a head all too obviously this season.
While the outcome might not be what some were hoping for, at least there is now clarity that Arsene Wenger will be the manager next season and the club can get on with doing business in a hugely important summer. Existing players need contracts sorted, some need to be shipped out, and important additions need to be made. Alongside the announcement of the new contract for the manager have been quotes from the owner and chief executive about the ambition being to win the league. In the set-up of the staff to assist Arsene Wenger, and in the transfer market, Arsenal now have to show that that ambition really is there, and it isn’t just a sound-bite to please supporters. Actions must speak louder than words.
Ultimately, the only way to truly unite the fan base again is by performances on the pitch, as Saturday proved. In a difficult and challenging season, there have been a few times when I’ve wondered exactly why I put myself through supporting Arsenal as it’s not been much fun and there’s been a toxic undercurrent among fans. But why do fans keep doing it? For days like Saturday, when Arsenal provide you with emotions and joy you just can’t find anywhere else.

Southampton seen off as Arsenal show signs of life

Even in bad seasons when title challenges have fallen away, Arsenal have generally ended campaigns well to consistently secure the place in the top four. This season has been particularly bad and most fans had resigned themselves to Thursday night football, but just maybe Arsenal are beginning to get on one their end-of-seasons runs to sneak into Europe’s top competition.
Realistically, it’ll require three wins from the last three games, and with a trip to Stoke included as one of those, the chances remain low. But the fact Arsenal have given themselves a chance at all of catching Manchester City or, more likely, Liverpool is a surprise. The 2-0 win on Wednesday at Southampton followed up the win over Manchester United and keeps the hopes alive.
As against Manchester United, Arsenal had to wait until the second half to score the decisive goals, and both of them stood out as the moments of real quality in the game. The Gunners are still adapting to a new way of playing and still trying to build confidence, and Southampton realistically don’t have much left to play for this season, so it made for a relatively quiet game for the most part, before the goals.
The first was worked really well by Arsenal from the back and through the midfield in just a few passes. Rather than looking to the wing-backs, Granit Xhaka played a good ball forward to Mesut Ozil, who cushioned a lovely pass into the path of Alexis Sanchez as the Chilean burst into the box. He showed composure to leave two covering defenders on the ground before finishing past Forster for his 20th league goal of the season. 
After scoring the winner in the FA Cup semi-final, Alexis has been quiet and there have been frustrations about him giving the ball away too many times. But there’s not many others in the league who you’d rather be on the end of an Ozil assist than Alexis Sanchez. Whatever the league position at the end of the season, I’m resigned to likelihood of him leaving, but hope I’m wrong. He can be infuriating, but in games such as Wednesday night, he can make the difference in tight situations.
The clinching goal came in the last ten minutes as Olivier Giroud fulfilled the super-sub role brilliantly again. Moments after coming off the bench, he got on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s header across the six yard box to nod home and secure the points. The build-up had been good with the cross from Alexis picking out Ramsey making another late run from midfield into the penalty area.
Ramsey followed up his good performance against Manchester United with another solid showing on the south coast as Arsenal finally seem to have found a consistent midfield pairing for the first time since Santi Cazorla’s injury back in October. Ramsey has a lot of freedom in the new system and is always willing to run beyond the opposition defence to stretch the play. He’s also getting a run of games without an injury, which has always been an issue for him. Unsurprisingly, he’s looking a lot sharper because of it.
Granit Xhaka alongside the Welshman had another good game as he ticked the play along nicely. His role in the team has seemed confused for a lot of the season, especially since Cazorla’s injury. Depending on who he has been playing alongside, he’s either had to be the more creative partner or more defensive partner, which hasn’t helped him settle into the team in his first season. With Ramsey now being the man usually attacking, Xhaka’s role has become a lot clearer and he is playing better. He’s also adapting to the league and does seem to have learnt from his tackling errors that brought red cards earlier in the season, even though they were harshly given. While there’s still a lot for Arsenal to work on in the new system offensively because of being a man down further up the field, the more consistent partnership in central midfield has been one of the definite benefits of switching to the 3-4-2-1.
There was a worry that with Laurent Koscielny missing through injury, Arsenal’s back three might fall apart given how well Koscielny performed against United, especially when effectively acting as a sweeper behind the other two centre-backs. But Shkodran Mustafi made an excellent return to the team in the middle of the three. His form, along with the team’s, fell off a cliff as the season went on, but the extra centre-back makes it a lot easier to cover if the German goes to press high and doesn’t make a tackle or interception, as happened too often when playing as a two. But on Wednesday night, he was more disciplined and did well alongside Rob Holding and Nacho Monreal, both of whom were solid again.
But as much as Arsenal did generally defend well, they were still indebted to Petr Cech for a few excellent first-half saves to keep the scores level. The Czech keeper has found some great form recently and made a vital one-on-one block from Gabbiadini and tipped over well from a powerful long-range effort from Redmond. There’s been some talk of a return for Wojciech Szczesny next season, something I’d be keen to see after his excellent season for Roma in Serie A, but Cech has rediscovered his form well recently after an indifferent season by his high standards.
Overall it was a job well done for Arsenal. After the defeat to Spurs, it felt like the Gunners would have to win all five of their remaining games to have a chance of squeaking into the top four, and so far it’s two from two. Arguably the toughest test of those five, Stoke City away, is next before two homes games. This run of form could still be too little too late, but Arsenal have finally got into the late-season groove and are clinging onto the chance of salvaging something from the wreckage of a dreadful second half of the league season.