Chelsea beautifully and savagely dismantled by free-flowing Gunners

So we were waiting for Arsenal to properly ‘click’ this season. There were glimpses against Hull and Watford, but everything came together in a thunderous and thrilling first half display at Emirates Stadium on Saturday. A win over Chelsea was long overdue, and when it arrived, it was comprehensive.
20 years after Arsene Wenger was introduced as the Arsenal manager, this was a performance that had all the hallmarks of Wenger’s best teams. The football was played at break-neck speed and the passing was crisp, while the Gunners looked solid at the back and didnt’t allow the visitors to bully them again.
It was one of those game where picking a man of the match was a slightly futile exercise because you could have made a compelling case for every Arsenal player to be up for the award. Each man was superb in one of the most complete performances at the Emirates in recent years. After romping into a 3-0 lead in the first half, Arsenal then controlled the game with Chelsea unable to muster a shot on target until late in the second half. After a string of decent results following the loss to Liverpool on the opening day, the visit of the Blues was viewed as a real test of where Arsenal are in terms of being able to launch a title challenge this season. On the evidence of Saturday, the Gunners are in very decent shape indeed.
In recent years against Chelsea, Arsenal have usually been unable to score the opening goal in matches between the two sides, with Chelsea usually able to get a lead and then just hold Arsenal at arms’ length. Last season there was also the issue of keeping 11 players on the pitch with Gabriel, Santi Cazorla and Per Mertesacker all seeing red. On this occasion, Arsenal managed to solve both of those problems with an early goal, and they subsequently kept their discipline by not even picking up a yellow card.
The early goal came about from the tenacity of Alexis Sanchez and the intensity with which Arsenal started the game. The Chilean pressurised Gary Cahill into playing a loose back-pass, allowing Alexis to race towards goal. The goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was drawn out of goal and Alexis delicately clipped the ball over him and into the net. It was as if the ease the confidence with which Alexis finished the chance seemed to pervade around the team as Arsenal immediately grabbed a strong grip on the game.
If the first goal had an element of fortune, the second was pure footballing magic. It was Wengerball at its best. Cazorla and Walcott linked up before the ball came to Iwobi near the edge of the box. He exchanged one-touch passes with Ozil before spinning to slide a ball in behind the covering defenders for Hector Bellerin. The Spaniard rolled the ball across the box for Theo Walcott to stroke the ball home with Chelsea chasing shadows. It was a goal that looked so simple but was absolutely brilliant because of the crisp and clinical execution.
The only downside in a barnstorming start was the knee injury picked up by Francis Coquelin when blocking a shot from N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman had made an excellent start to the game alongside Cazorla in midfield, justifying his selection in a competitive part of the Arsenal squad. But whereas his injury destabilised the Arsenal side last season, Granit Xhaka strolled on in his place and slotted in perfectly into the team on Saturday. He’s had a good start to the season, so hopefully Coquelin isn’t out for a long time, but the strength of the squad now means that it won’t be the major blow it was 12 months ago.
At 2-0, there was still a fear that Chelsea could sneak a way back into the game. But Arsenal topped off a thrilling first period with a brutally beautiful third goal on the counter-attack. After a Chelsea attack broke down on the edge of Arsenal’s penalty area, Mesut Ozil glided away from Kante and alongside Alexis charged towards Gary Cahill and David Luiz. Alexis broke to the right and chipped the ball perfectly to the back post after receiving the ball from German, allowing Ozil to run onto the ball and volley it past Courtois via the post. It wasn’t the cleanest connection from Ozil, but the breakaway was clinical and emphatic.
The start of the season has brought about a lot of debate about the make-up of Arsenal’s front four, with Alexis predominantly playing down the middle. On Saturday, it suddenly all made sense as, after going ahead so early, Arsenal then had the perfect four to break quickly on Chelsea with the pace of Alexis and Walcott, and the guile of Ozil and Iwobi. So far this season, Walcott and Iwobi have taken some of the creative and scoring burden from Arsenal’s two main men, something that wasn’t happening as much last season. If Ozil wasn’t creating chances, generally Arsenal weren’t creating chances, but Iwobi has helped change that by offering a different option. 
Arsenal did have chances to kill the game off in the second half as Walcott’s chipped cross was just too high for Alexis before the winger had a shot saved by the legs of Courtois. That didn’t take away from an excellent all-round display from Walcott as he was keen to get involved, tracked back to assist Bellerin in negating Hazard and read the game superbly to pop up in the middle to tap in Arsenal’s second goal. Something has happened to Theo Walcott this season as he looks more focussed and more committed for the team. Long may it continue. 
The longer the game went on, the more desperate Arsenal fans were to keep a clean sheet to emphasise the nature of the victory. Bar a one-on-one saved by Petr Cech, Chelsea struggled to find a way through a stubborn Arsenal defence. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny dealt with Diego Costa superbly as they hassled him, were physical and cut off any supply around the box by challenging him higher up the pitch. I’ve never seen Costa bullied by two centre-backs in the way Mustafi and Koscielny did. When Costa was shoved unceremoniously to the ground by Koscielny late in the game before picking up a yellow card for dissent, it summed out how dominant Arsenal had been against a player that has used all of his tricks to deceive, cheat and score against the Gunners in the past. 
On the odd occasion that the centre-backs were caught out, the full-backs covered superbly. Nacho Monreal kept Willian quiet, while Hector Bellerin stopped Eden Hazard making any sort of impact on the game. Bellerin also brought the house down with a stunning recovery tackle on Pedro when the winger looked set to go through on goal. Despite giving Pedro a few yards as a head start, Bellerin ate up the ground in a staggering show of speed before perfectly timing the tackle on the edge of the box. Even at 3-0 up, it was brilliant to see the determination and commitment of the Arsenal team to not give Chelsea anything to take from the game.
The win was long overdue against Chelsea. While Antonio Conte clearly has plenty to sort out in his squad, it wasn’t as if the visitors were dreadfully poor at the Emirates, they just got taken apart by the Gunners. They came up against a united and determined Arsenal team, who had a game plan and executed it perfectly.
The win and the performance was a fitting way to mark 20 years since Arsene Wenger was unveiled as the Arsenal manager. It harked back to the glory days of his early reign as Gunners boss, and hinted those days could yet return with a few more similar performances this season. The challenge is now for Arsenal to replicate that performance again and again during this campaign, but it is also important to savour it as a game on its own. It was a day that makes the bad ones as a football fan seem worth suffering through because sometimes you get to witness some breathe-taking brilliance. Arsenal served up plenty of that on Saturday. 


Premier League Predictions – Ed's Riposte

So the season’s back, and Sam’s Match Reports is once again writing articles like this one, where Sam made a load of predictions that I didn’t agree with.  So, I went ahead and wrote my own Premier League predictions, and then blackmailed him with videos of him doing the Per Mertesacker dance until he posted it.
So, here is how I think the Premier League will pan out this season, with a few notes about each team:
(NB, I must apologise for not knowing a lot about Leicester and Burnley.  Other than checking in on Watford every so often I really don’t follow Championship football, so I can’t honestly judge how well they’ll do).
1. Chelsea
Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Mourinho is a great manager.  While some of his transfer decisions have seemed a little bizarre, such as the sales of Mata and Lukaku, they clearly show that he has a team and a style in mind, and is prepared to cut ruthlessly where players don’t fit with those plans.  His acquisitions over the summer have been fantastic.  Arsenal, City and Chelsea fans may have taken heart from the fact that Costa had a bad World Cup, but he was fantastic in Spain last year and could turn out to be the signing of the season.  Meanwhile it’s also worth remembering that his Atletico Madrid teammate, Thibaut Courtois, is back at Chelsea after some astonishing performances last season.  For my mind, Petr Cech has been up with the greatest goalkeepers in the world for the last few seasons, but for the first time in his Chelsea career he faces a real threat to his position as number one.
2. Manchester City
The champions last year haven’t had an explosively exciting transfer window, which is why I think Chelsea will pip them to the post, but they still have an incredible squad and some superb players.  Arsenal fans are right to celebrate the victory of the Community Shield, but I’m not convinced that City’s form from that game will continue into the Premier League season.  Other than their makeshift defensive lineup, the main reason that City were unable to impose themselves on the game was that Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri gave very poor performances.  Both were outstanding last season, and, cake issues aside, I expect them to be back to their best this season as well.  Up front Jovetic has looked good in pre-season in the absence of Negredo and Aguero.  2nd place, and a cup trophy.
3. Arsenal
I’m betting on Arsenal to come third this year.  If you’re reading this blog you already know what a blinder Wenger has played in the transfer window this summer, and I expect to see another central defender come in before the end of August.  The lack of a defensive midfielder doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and I’m not convinced that the benefits of having someone in that mould (and they are few and far between) would outweigh the advantages of having Arteta’s crisp, precise passing, his cool penalty-taking skills, and his well-timed professional fouls.  Unfortunately, even with the addition of Sanchez, I just don’t think we’ll finish at the top of the table – it’ll be close, but Chelsea and City do still have better teams. Another cup win would be lovely though (League Cup, just to show that we can mix it up a bit).
4. Liverpool
A lot of people I talk to seem to be betting on Liverpool to drop out of the top four this year.  I’m not convinced.  Yes, the loss of Suarez is a blow, but they still have a great team and a really talented manager.  Despite a lot of mockery on Twitter that they’re doing a “Tottenham” with the money gained from Suarez’s sale, it’s actually a very different situation.  Tottenham replaced Bale with nearly an entirely new first team who had never played together before.  Rodgers hasn’t done that.  Instead he’s kept a hold of most of the team that got him to second place last year, and brought in players to improve his squad and put competition on the first team places.  Don’t be surprised if they bring in another striker in the next couple of weeks, either.  Without Suarez they’re not good enough to win the title, but they’ll still get a Champion’s League spot.
5. Manchester United
Yes, Van Gaal is a better manager than Moyes, and there’s no doubt that that will improve United performances, but I can’t be alone in thinking that the weaknesses United displayed last season extended beyond the manager.  Despite their impressive attacking firepower, to my mind they are still lacking in quality midfield players, even with the addition of Herrera.  As for their defence, the loss of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra has left them short-staffed and lacking both quality and experience, and so far Van Gaal’s first Premier League transfer window hasn’t exactly wowed me.  Give him time and I’m sure he’ll push them back to being title contenders, but this season I don’t see them getting into the top 4.
6. Tottenham Hotspur
Spurs have been relatively quiet this transfer window, but I expect them to be a very dangerous team this season.  Pochettino is a good manager, and the players that were bought in 2013 have now had time to get to know each other and learn to play as a team.  Even under Sherwood Spurs went on an impressive run in the second half of last season, and I expect to see a very exciting three-way scrap between them, United and Everton.
7. Everton
I really like Martinez, I love what he’s doing at Everton and I’m seriously impressed that he’s managed to get Barry and Lukaku on permanent deals.  I know I’m not alone amongst Arsenal fans in seeing him as a possible future replacement for Wenger, when Le Professeur finally retires (on a throne made of melted down trophies, held aloft by broken Chelsea players).  Unfortunately I think Everton are going to be undone by last season’s success.  Europa League games add extra fixtures that I’m not sure Everton have the depth to deal with, and Thursday night games are not ideal for Premier League clubs.  Still, I’ll be satisfied if Arsenal can get a point when we go to Goodison Park in a week’s time – Everton are a very good club, and they’ll finish comfortably 7th.
8. Newcastle
Pardew’s lost Loic Remy and Mathieu Debuchy, but he’s brought in some new talent and I think they’ll have a solid, if unexciting, season, finishing 8th.  Not a lot else to say, because I don’t really care.
9. Stoke
Am I a huge fan of Mark Hughes?  Not particularly.  And, like any Gooner, I can’t stand Ryan Shawcross.  However, Stoke have always been a tough team to beat, and Hughes has got them playing some decent football.  Their transfer window has involved grabbing good players from average teams around them, with Steve Sidwell and Phil Bardsley coming in, and I think they’ll be unlucky to not make the top half of the table.  Also, for some reason I can really see them making a good cup-run.  FA Cup semi-finalists, I reckon.  You heard it here first.
10. Swansea
Swansea make some really strange decisions.  I was never sure why they got rid of Laudrup as manager, and now I’m really not sure why Michu has gone out on loan.  I know he was injured for much of last season, but he was electric the year before, and a loan move seems to help nobody.  Either sell him for ten times what you bought him for, or keep him in the squad.  In any case, in 2013-2014 his goals were picked up by Bony, who I expect to perform again this season.  The loss of Davies,
Vorm and Flores will hurt, but Sigurdsson, Montero and, of course, Fabianksi will soften that blow.  Mid-table.
11. West Ham
I don’t understand people who are critical of Big Sam.  Sure, his philosophy is a little more pragmatic than those of Wenger or Rodgers, but he’s made West Ham a strong team and he’s bought well this window.  Sakho and Valencia are good attacking signings, and I’m sure Arsenal fans everywhere will look forward to seeing Carl Jenkinson tearing up the Hammers’ right flank.  They’ll be fine, easily clear of relegation.
12. Hull City
Up until the loss of Shane Long, I thought Steve Bruce was having a great transfer window.  Even with that exit, Hull are still a good team, although they, like Everton, could suffer from Europa League games.  Bottom half, but no difficulties.
13. Southampton
Southampton have made the papers for the “exodus” of Lambert, Lallana, Chambers, Shaw and Lovren, but stories of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.  If they can keep a hold of Schneiderlin and Rodriguez then they should be fine, although whether Koeman can replicate Pochettino’s quick-pass football remains to be seen.
14. Sunderland
Poyet was incredible last season, keeping an almost certainly doomed Sunderland in top flight football.  He’s gone on to demonstrate his strength as a manager in the transfer window.  Rodwell, Jones, Gomez and Pantilimon are all great signings for a club at this level, and give him some good depth to work with.  They’ll have no difficulty staying up this season.
15. West Bromwich Albion
Some decent, if unspectacular, signings have been augmented by the gamble of Brown Ideye for £10m.  I’ve not seen the man play, so I can’t judge whether this is a good purchase or not.  If it is, West Brom should be fine.  If Ideye turns out to be a flop then West Brom are once again going to be struggling desperately to find any goals.
16. Queens Park Rangers
I watched QPR against Derby in the play-offs at the end of last season in a pub in Derby, and I was struck by the number of rejects from other Premier League clubs that they have on their books.  Derby were the better team that day, but QPR got the goal, much to the chagrin of my fellow drinkers.  Redknapp has added to his number with Cardiff’s two best players and one of England’s best defenders, which is shrewd buying, and I don’t see them getting relegated this season.
17. Crystal Palace
Palace are now my local club, and I had them much higher on this list until today.  Pulis was superb last season, and it will be difficult to replace him.  Furthermore his reasons for leaving – the lack of money available for transfers – have limited the amount of talent they’ve been able to pull in.  They’ll definitely be in the relegation scrap until the end of the season, but with the right manager I think they might just nick it.
18. Aston Villa
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Villa by putting them all the way down here, but I just don’t rate them at all.  Their new signings leave me cold, and Lambert seems to be struggling to replicate the managerial skill he demonstrated at Norwich.  Time’s up, Villa.  You’re going down.
19. Leicester
I don’t know a great deal about Leicester, or most of their players, so this might be a bit unfair.  I do like Kasper Schmeichel as a keeper, but whether they’ll have enough to keep them up, I don’t know.
20. Burnley
No idea.  Always liked Marvin Sordell but he’s now 23 and hasn’t progressed as much as he promised to.  Would be impressed to see them stay up.

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The big new season predictions post

Despite the distraction of the best World Cup in living memory, a summer without club football is never easy. From an Arsenal point of view, those days of waiting were so much more bearable knowing a trophy was finally in the cabinet at the Emirates Stadium. Yet it has reached that time again were predictions are made, previews are written and everyone’s life can go back to the crazy world of club football. A world so crazy that, even as I write this, a Premier League manager has left his job because of his club’s transfer policy. It’s like we’ve never been away.

Pundits and journalists attempt to hype up every season as ‘the greatest ever’ before it begins, but there is a genuine feeling that the coming 2014-2015 season has the potential to be one of the most exciting in Premier League history. There are five clubs who can legitimately go into the new campaign with optimism, and dream of their captain lifting the trophy in May.

Having read the predictions of numerous pundits, and got annoyed at most of them, Chelsea are expected by many to provide Jose Mourinho with a first trophy in two years. With the additions of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa over the summer, the Blues have added some proven performers. But, for me, doubts should still persist. While he was good in La Liga for Atletico Madrid, Diego Costa absolutely stunk the place out in Brazil for the World Cup, and a return to that form would present Chelsea with a real problem. Fernando Torres is still inconsistent, and in a slight act of desperation, Mourinho brought back an ageing Didier Drogba to provide cover for his front line. Drogba can still bully lesser opposition, but may struggle against the top defenders.

Having lost Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole, and with rumours about Petr Cech leaving for Chelsea to fulfil the quota for overseas players in a squad, Mourinho has lost experienced men who could be missed if the going gets tough during the middle of the season. There should be an improvement on last season, but Chelsea need their new striker to hit the ground running to be positioned well for the sharp end of the season.

The other popular prediction as winners among pundits is the reigning champions, Manchester City. There has been a total disregard for City being outplayed by Arsenal on Sunday in the Community Shield, which is understandable given the defenders that City were missing. But they still looked pretty toothless in attack, so should Sergio Aguero be unavailable at any point during the season, City fans should be concerned. Questions should still be asked about Yaya Toure’s state of mind. Does he want a cake or not?

Having won two trophies last season, Manchester City do have the experience, and Pellegrini brought a much more exciting style of play to the club than the one often implemented by Roberto Mancini. With most other teams that were chasing Manchester City last season all improving over the summer, it will be a tough fight for Pellegrini, but with the resources at that club, it’s hard to not see them being involved in the title race right up until May.

Despite the improvements of others, the team that were closest to Manchester City in the table last season, Liverpool, are the only title chasers that are arguably weaker than they were in 2013-2014. The inevitable loss of Luis Suarez was always going to be a problem for Brendon Rodgers to solve, and there are many, myself included, who doubt if the Tottenham-style supermarket sweep is the right answer. They’ve added depth to the squad, but have they added quality to improve the starting XI? Not really.

The added pressures and extra fixtures of Champions League football could stretch the squad, as the reinforcements may prove to not be good enough to keep Liverpool strong in all the competitions they’ll enter this season. Steven Gerrard isn’t getting any younger, Daniel Sturridge has a lot of pressure to perform without Suarez, and both gave some very poor performances at the World Cup for England. The capitulation at the end of last season when it seemed harder to not win the league could play on the team’s mind in pressure situations this season. There is a real sense that 2013-2014 was the opportunity for Liverpool to finally win the league again. After blowing it and selling their best player, questions remain about whether that season was the start of a prolonged period of title challenges, or just a one-off season where most things, until May, went right.

Liverpool’s place in the top four could be taken by the team they’ve replaced in Europe’s main competition, Manchester United. The David Moyes experiment was, let’s face it, pretty dreadful in every single way for United fans. Some key players did get injured, but his tactics were naïve and those of a manager who didn’t know how to manage a top club.

There is understandable renewed optimism at Old Trafford, because in Louis van Gaal, they have a manager who can deal with the pressure that comes with managing Manchester United. He’ll have the respect of the players after leading an unfancied Dutch side to the World Cup semi-finals, and has the medals from previous jobs to prove his methods work.

However, it may too soon for a title challenge. Even though the players won’t have European distractions, the lack of Champions League football has made it harder for van Gaal to secure the signings he wants. There are still significant holes at centre-backs and central midfield to be filled, while Luke Shaw’s injury means the left wing back position could be filled by Ashley Young at the start of the season. Bigger players are reluctant to move, despite the size of Manchester United, because they know it’ll be at least a year until they’re back in the Champions League. In modern football, that is too long to wait for some.

Of the expected top five, that just leaves the Arsenal. Can the summer dealings really make a Premier League title possible? Has a corner really been turned by winning the FA Cup? Is Aaron Ramsey the best player in the world and the true Welsh messiah? Is Per Mertesacker the person we should all be learning dance moves from? Well the answer to all of those questions, I think, is yes.

Arsene Wenger hasn’t messed about trying to get bargain deals in the transfer window, he’s known who he’s needed to replace those who left along with adding some star quality, and he’s got the deals done. The extra centre-back is still a concern, but otherwise, the Arsenal squad is looking strong. The core is still the same as the one that lost so embarrassingly at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea last season, but having got over the mental hurdle of winning a trophy, there is more trust in this group of players.

Alexis Sanchez is the most exciting addition to the Premier League this season, and offers Arsenal versatility in the front three positions. With Theo Walcott unavailable for the first few weeks of the season, Sanchez also offers the pace in behind that the Gunners missed so badly without Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain for much of last season. The prospect of him linking up with Mesut Ozil, a world champion who’ll be better prepared for a season in the Premier League, is an extremely tasty one.

Questions will always be asked about the Gunners’ staying power, the performances in the big away games and the team’s supposed soft centre, but I’m confident that this set of Arsenal players are better set up to answer those questions this season. Arsenal were only seven points off the top last season, and the new players combined with the confidence and winning mentality created by securing the FA Cup and Community Shield, that is a bridgeable gap in the coming months.

If you can’t be optimistic in August, then you’ll have no faith for the rest of the season. More out of blind, excited, hope rather than expectation, I believe Arsene Wenger could pull it off this season.

As for the rest, Everton have made some good additions, but with others strengthening, li
ke Liverpool, last year could have been their best chance of reaching their main aim. The top four ultimately eluded them, and I expect it to do so again. Tottenham are putting faith in another manager to try and pull together something out of the individuals that make up that squad. In reality, with Michael Dawson at centre-back, barring a miracle, the top four is extremely unlikely. At the bottom, I think Burnley will struggle, QPR won’t manage to bring another randomly assembled squad together and West Brom will continue a gradual slide over the last year and a half that will end in the Championship.

2014-2015 season prediction:

*Dons tin hat despite most readers being Arsenal fans*

1. Arsenal
2. Manchester City
3. Chelsea
4. Manchester United
5. Liverpool
6. Everton
7. Tottenham Hotspur
8. Newcastle United
9. Stoke City
10. Aston Villa
11. Swansea City
12. West Ham United
13. Leicester City
14. Southampton
15. Hull City
16. Sunderland
17. Crystal Palace
18. West Bromwich Albion
19. Queens Park Rangers
20. Burnley

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