Bayern Munich are better than Everton

This isn’t going to be a blog about “what if?”, as in “what if Özil had scored?” or “what if Szczesny hadn’t been sent off?” or even “what if we had kept the score at 0-1?”.  The reason this isn’t going to be about that is that I’m actually pretty happy about that game.
No, really, I am.  Here why: we were never going to win the Champions League anyway.
OK, so maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe we’ll win 2-0 at the Allianz, it will go to extra time, one goal each way, go to penalties at 3-3, we forbid Özil to be anywhere near the spot, and we’re through to the quarter finals; a winning streak follows and Abou Diaby scores a 92nd minute belter from the halfway line in Lisbon on 24th May.  Maybe that’s what will happen.
The realist in me tends to doubt it, however.  Even if we got through this round, we would probably have had to face Barcelona, Madrid, Milan, Dortmund, PSG, Chelsea or City in the next, then one of them again in the semis, and then again in the finals, and my gut tells me we would have slipped up somewhere.  For me, this season has never been about the Champions League.  Arsenal feel like they’re at the beginning of a renaissance, but winning the most prestigious club competition in the world comes mid-renaissance, not just as its starting.
No, for me now this season is about competing for the Premier League and making a real stab at the FA Cup.  And the reason I’m pretty happy is this: Arsenal were awesome tonight.
It was, I think, the best we’ve played since Napoli at home.  For the first forty minutes Bayern Munich, the best team in the world and the cup favourites, were made to look no more than mildly talented as Arsenal’s midfield zipped the ball around, kept possession, and created some real chances, with only Manuel Neuer (arguably the world’s best goalkeeper at the moment) keeping them in the game, saving that penalty and denying great efforts from Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo.  After Szczesny was sent off Arsenal put in a really valiant effort as Bayern gave a textbook example of how to play against ten men, spreading the play and working Arsenal to their absolute limit, and to only concede two goals in the second half is a real credit to the whole team.
I’m going to talk about Sanogo.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to say he’s our saviour or he’s the new new new new Messi, or anything, but I must confess that I, like everyone else, assumed that this summer purchase was a “one for the future” sort of deal – that Sanogo would play some U21 games (when he wasn’t injured) and then make a nice back-up for a real signing in two years time.  But now Wenger has twice picked him over Bendtner, while Giroud’s personal life messes up his game (I’m sorry, I refuse to believe that this is not why he’s been benched), against first Liverpool and now Munich.  In neither game has he wowed, but he has also not looked at all out of his depth, getting shots on target, showing a real talent for close control, winning the ball in the air and making some smart passes.  If he can stay fit then I think he can make a real contribution to Arsenal’s 13/14 season and will be a key squad member for years to come, and maybe even a first choice striker at some point.  All in all what seemed to be an odd decision is now looking like a good signing, and Wenger deserves credit for that.
But if Sanogo’s performance was good, I thought Wilshere’s was outstanding.  Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion this was the best that Jack Wilshere has played for a good few months, probably since the game against Norwich.  Recently Wilshere has been criticised by some of the fan base, mostly, I think, for not being as good as he was in that Barcelona game.  To be honest, he may never have a game like that day again, but today showed why he remains a first-class option for Arsenal, and why Wenger has let him play through his poorer form.  Around him Flamini and Oxlade-Chamberlain also performed admirably, and even Mesut Özil, the only German who can’t score a penalty, didn’t have nearly as bad a game as Gary Neville claimed (although he definitely deteriorated after that missed effort).
So, we didn’t beat Bayern Munich, but you know what?  Who cares.  Our next big game is against Everton, and if we play like we did today, particularly like we did in the first half, then we’ll destroy them, and that puts us in the semi-final, where we’d have a 2/3 chance of drawing one of Hull, Brighton, Sunderland, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic (and the remote possibility of drawing Wigan, should they beat City).  A trophy is, for the first time in many years, a very real possibility.
Meanwhile in the Premier League we sit one point behind Chelsea, with our next three games against Sunderland, Stoke and Swansea.  Again, if we play like we did today then that should be 9 points in the bag, and with Chelsea facing Everton and Tottenham in that time, not to mention a west London derby against a resurgent Fulham, there’s a real chance that we could take back top spot again.  Arteta and Vermaelen will be back in the team, Ramsey should be coming back soon, Källström apparently plays for us, and Gnabry and Zelalem provide us with extra options for the cup if we should need it.
The only thing that really that really concerns me is Gibbs’s injury.  While we’re well covered at left-back – Monreal, Flamini, Sanga and Vermaelen can all play there – Gibbs would always be my first choice, and he was playing well before he pulled up.  Fingers crossed it’s not another long-term injury for him.  There’s a rumour that Ox was taken off because he was carrying a knock, too; I hope that’s not the case, he’s really stepped up in the last couple of weeks and with Walcott unavailable he’s the closest thing we have to an actual winger.
Aside from that, though, I remain optimistic.  I don’t know if we’ll win anything this season.  What I do know is that this is the best Arsenal have looked in years – we have options on the bench, we have great players who are still young enough to become world-class players, we have money to spend in the summer, we have an outstanding set of defenders, and we still have Arsene Wenger.  I am, in short, the happiest I have ever been as an Arsenal fan, and I look forward to seeing the Champions League trophy in the Emirates in three years time.
N.B. I wasn’t at the game tonight – I know Sam was – but based on what I saw/heard on Sky Sports the Arsenal fans were in excellent form and really backed their team in a tough game.  I tip my hat to you, ladies and gentlemen – it’s great to see and long may it continue!

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Southampton, Set Pieces and Other Rambling

“I genuinely can’t understand the extreme nature of some of the reaction”.
That quote is from Arseblog’s Wednesday morning article, in response to the doom and gloom of Arsenal fans everywhere following the 2-2 draw at St Mary’s on Tuesday evening.
On the one hand, I understand why Andrew Mangan said it.  One draw, one bad half, two points dropped – this is in no way the end of Arsenal’s season, and does not, by itself, suggest that we’re about to implode.  Or explode.  Or displode (yes, it’s a word).  We also drew against West Bromwich in October, lost to Man City and Man United, and those weren’t the ends of our season either, any more than Chelsea’s 0-0 draw with West Ham on Wednesday night was the end of theirs.  Even the Invincibles didn’t win every game.  The title race is still well and truly on, and this is still Arsenal’s best shot at winning the Premier League for years.
Having said all that, I must confess I can understand the nature of some of the fan reaction at an emotional level.  All season, we’ve been watching in a state of disbelief.  Arsenal have been playing fantastically, and showing some real strength and professionalism, but so ingrained is an Arsenal fan’s sense of pessimism that we have all been sitting, waiting for that moment when the true, brittle nature of the team, which we’ve suspected has been there all along, is exposed, and our season comes crumbling down around our ears.  There’s also an awareness, reinforced by Match of the Day pundits, that City and Chelsea have fundamentally better squads than we do, and that our credentials only lasted as long as we were ahead of them.  Now we’ve fallen from the top of the table, it is hard to imagine how we will claw it back from City.
So, there’s some pop psychology for you.  For me, though, more worrying than the result against Southampton is the injury situation.  With Walcott, Ramsey, Wilshere, Flamini and Rosicky all out for the count, our previously impressive midfield now looks positively threadbare, and although the return of Podolski, Arteta and Ox is welcome, it doesn’t cover the holes by a long shot.  Wenger has made noises about hoping to have some good news before the end of January, and while it’s easy to joke that Arsene only brings in midfielders, at this point it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, particularly if they were versatile enough to also play wing/fullback/defence/up-front/goalkeeper when needed.
One thing I’ve noticed that Arsenal are lacking is a dedicated free kick taker.  It has been remarked (on Sam’s Match Reports podcasts, among other places) that this season has seen a high number of direct free kicks scored, many of them superlatively.  Every big team has someone who can step up to a dead ball and put it into the top corner over half the time: Liverpool have Suarez and Gerrard, Everton have Baines, United have Mata and RVP, Chelsea have Hazard and Oscar and Lampard and Luis, and City have Yaya Toure plus probably some other people I can’t think of right now.  Whenever anyone of those players gets an opportunity to take a free kick in the final third, your pulse quickens – you can feel that, even if this isn’t going to be a goal, it’s going to be a damn good free kick.  Even mid-table teams like Villa, Stoke and Sunderland have a specialist in their midst.
Arsenal lack that.  This season we’ve seen free kicks taken by half a dozen players, and the closest we’ve come to scoring from one is Ramsey’s goal against Stoke from Özil’s deflected shot, and Giroud’s header from Walcott’s lofted kick.  Whenever we get a free kick, whether it’s just outside the box or forty yards away, I never get excited, because I know it won’t be a goal.
This is slightly ridiculous for two reasons.  One, Arsenal’s tendency to be the fouled rather than the foulers (Jack Wilshere alone buys half a dozen free kicks a game) means that we are almost guaranteed an opportunity each match; if that opportunity could be turned into even a 25% chance of scoring, that’s probably going to average a goal every two or three games, and there isn’t a lot that even the most stubborn defence can do against the sorts of free kicks that we’ve seen Suarez, Oscar and Toure take this season.  It’s worth also noting that none of the players I’ve mentioned so far is a worse player for their set piece delivery – in fact, I’ve pretty much mentioned the best players in the league.
The second reason is that we’ve seen from our corner kick taking that it is clearly possible to practice and improve on this sort of play.  Cazorla, Özil and Walcott have got to the point where, most of the time, they can drop a corner on Mertesacker’s head for the perfect flick-on, and that’s come from nothing more than being drilled to get it right.  Well, good, we’ve got corners down now, so let’s move on – have those three (or someone else – Arteta, Wilshere, Ramsey, Podolski, Gibbs, Jenkinson, Gnabry and Oxlade-Chamberlain could probably all pull it off) practice putting it into the top corner for an hour after training every evening.  Free kicks are just that: they’re a free opportunity to gain an advantage.  We should be taking that advantage.
Anyway, sorry for the rambling nature of this article.   We now have 2 days to the end of the transfer window (not holding my breath) and 4 days before facing Crystal Palace.  Whether by free kick, possession play, route one or the unleashing of barbarian hordes, I think we can all agree that that’s a game that we have to win.  A draw away against Southampton is not the end of the world; failing to beat Palace at home might well suggest a deeper problem.

Seven Teams, Four Places, One Trophy

Author’s Note:  This is my first post on Sam’s Match Reports, and my first ever blog entry about Arsenal.  I hope you all enjoy what I’ve written, and I look forward to writing a few more entries over the next few months.
At the beginning of the season Harry Redknapp, that pinnacle of footballing punditry, went on Match of the Day and said that Tottenham would finish ahead of Arsenal this season.  Of course I seem to remember he said the same thing last season, but after our dismal performance against Aston Villa, and in the absence of any major signings, it was hard to disagree with him, and agreeing with Harry Redknapp made me even more depressed.  After that first weekend of the season it seemed clear how the season was going to pan out: Chelsea would sweep to victory under the keen oversight of the reinstated Mourinho, the two Manchester clubs would bash it out for second and third, and Arsenal would struggle to make even the Europa League with Liverpool and Tottenham both brandishing a number of notable new signings.
Since then, however, things have changed.  After four games what looked like a foregone conclusion now looks far murkier, and the title race is not so much locked up as it is more open than it has been in years.  Given that, I thought I’d take this moment to look at the teams that Arsenal will be competing most closely with, and see how their seasons look in comparison to the Gunners.
Chelsea
As I said above, I assumed Chelsea would walk to victory this season.  Their defeat at Everton, however, means that they’ve had their worst opening to a season in the Abramovich era (although they’ve still taken seven points from twelve, so they’re not exactly doing badly).  Mourinho has brought his patented defend-first policy back to Stamford Bridge, but in his absence the Premier League teams have grown.  Aston Villa gave them a run for their money, United defended just as well as Chelsea, and Everton’s sheer hard work saw them grab a 1-0 victory against the odds.  On top of that Mourinho seems to have taken a bizarre dislike to Chelsea’s two-time player of the year, Juan Mata, and sent his most capable goal-scorer Romelu Lukaku out on loan.  I still think Chelsea have the strongest squad in the league, but Mourinho might find a Premier League title isn’t as easy to achieve as he remembers.
Manchester City
Arguably Manchester City made the most impressive, and certainly the most efficient, transfers of the window, bringing in Navas, Fernandinho, Negredo and Arsenal target Stevan Jovetic early in the summer.  Undeniably they have some real world-class talent in their squad, but as a team they haven’t looked on form since before the end of last season, losing the FA Cup to Wigan in June, losing to Arsenal in a pre-season friendly and, most recently, losing to newly promoted Cardiff.  They also have an injury situation to rival Arsenal’s, with defenders Clichy, Kompany and Richards and play-maker Silva all out of action.  If they get their players back to full fitness and in form then they could be odds-on to take the title, but at the moment new man Pellegrini has his work cut out getting his squad to gel.
Manchester United
I still can’t believe that United didn’t beat us to Mesut Özil in the transfer window.  Last year’s title winners, all they needed was a real creative number ten.  Instead they ended up with Marouane Fellaini (who, as a defensive CM, should arguably have been on Arsenal’s shopping list – maybe Moyes and Wenger just picked up the wrong shopping bags in Deadline-Day-Transfers-R-Us).  I watched United against Liverpool a couple of weeks ago.  Wayne Rooney was injured and Van Persie wasn’t his usual spectacular self, and out of their entire team only Patrice Evra showed any sign of creativity.  Their defence and attack are as good as – or better than – those of any other team in Europe, but their midfielders are solid rather than incisive.  I’ve spoken to more than one United fan who would be pleased with a top four finish this season.  Having said that, United have proved time and time again that you can never rule them out, so that may just be pessimism brought about by the loss of Ferguson.  We shall see.
Tottenham Hotspur
It pains me to say it, but Daniel Levy may be a business genius.  The way he handled the Gareth Bale scenario was inspired, and the players he has brought in are all established internationals, many of them with Champions League experience.  Christian Eriksen in particular impressed against Norwich this weekend, and their squad has a depth to make any Arsenal fan really quite envious.  Only up front are they a bit short, but as their midfield gel I think they won’t have any difficulty putting goals away.  They may have lost the most expensive player in the world but they’ve more than made up for it, and while a title challenge might be optimistic they can more than expect to be fighting for Champions League.
Liverpool
The surprise package this season, after finishing seventh last year Liverpool now sit at the top of the table.  I know we’re only four games in but ten points from twelve, which included a victory over Manchester United, is a not insignificant achievement.  Daniel Sturridge seems to finally have found his niche, Suarez is soon to be back on the football field with his appetite for both goals and human flesh (sorry, couldn’t resist), Coutinho is looking disturbingly talented and Brendan Rodgers has shored up his defence with several established figures, not least the mighty Kolo Toure.  Whether they can keep their form up all season remains to be seen, but they’ve had a better start than anyone would have given them credit for, and that’s worrying in itself.
Everton
Of all the teams on this list I think Everton have the least chance of mounting a title challenge, but they’re more than in the running for Champions League action.  Martinez is a newcomer to the top half of the table but I think he’s an excellent manager, and the sale of Fellaini was more than compensated for by the purchase of Gareth Barry, the loan of Romelu Lukaku and the retention of Leighton Baines.  Goodison Park has become something of a fortress in recent months, and I wouldn’t expect them to lose too many games there over the coming months.  If Martinez doesn’t take the Toffees to at least the Europa League, it’ll be a big disappointment for Everton.
Arsenal
So, where do we stand in all this?  Are we, as the increasingly melting face of Harry Redknapp suggested, at risk of missing out on the Champions League for the first time in 17 years?  Or has the signing of the best assister (is there a better word for that?) in Europe halted our collapse and signalled a Gunners resurgence?  Can Arsenal win the title?
Yes, to all those questions.  The fact is that the strengthening of the teams that finished last season below us, and the difficulties currently being experienced by the teams that finished above us, mean that instead of two teams challenging for the title this year there are actually six (not counting Everton: see above).  Chelsea are still favourites for me, but if at the end of this season the top four contains any combination, in any order, of the teams I’ve listed, then I won’t be too surprised.  A Spurs title where City don’t make the Champions League?  It’s definitely possible.  A United/Arsenal battle for fourth place?  Could be.  A Merseyside resurgence that sees Liverpool take the trophy and Everton claim second place?  It might happen.  All I know is that, with all seven teams listed above looking competitive and only four Champions League spots, someone – more than one someone – is going to lose out.  Could be us.  Could be anyone else.
All in all I think we’re in for the most open and interesting Premier League title race that we’ve seen for a long time, and I would be too surprised if it wasn’t determined by goal difference, injuries and plain dumb luck.
Which means Arsenal are screwed, of course.