Spurs torched by the Flame

It does feel as if Arsenal have experienced a bit of the worst and a bit of best that sport has to offer over the last few games. I, like many other fans, got extremely angry and frustrated watching the defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Chelsea, with my displeasure being directed at the team, the officials and opposition. There was a sense that Arsenal had been cheated out of the game at Stamford Bridge, a view backed up by subsequent FA actions for Diego Costa and Gabriel, and the club was in need of a bit of a lift.
No-one could ever have seriously predicted that said lift would be provided by Mathieu Flamini. Despite being a man of some excellent nicknames (the Flame, Flam, the Corsican), none of which that I can take credit for, and being a man who has always given his all when wearing the red and white, Mathieu Flamini hasn’t been particularly popular with supporters in the last year or so. While it is very true that he has his limitations, it’s never for a lack of effort or passion when playing for the Arsenal that has led to some indifferent performances from the Frenchman.
But this is one of the great things about sport that keeps us coming back. There can be a saturation of media coverage and analysis, but no-one can ever guarantee what will happen, and so Mathieu Flamini proved by becoming Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp in the same evening and winning Arsenal a North London derby.
Too often in football, partly fuelled by the hyped-up transfer market, there is a focus on what a player can’t do, rather than what they can do. On derby day at the Lane, Mathieu Flamini managed to make people forget what he can’t do with a spirited performance in his first game of the season, and realigned views on what he is capable of as a player.
In a Capital One Cup game that lacked a bit of cohesion because of the changes made by both sides, Flamini led the way with the drive and the determination you need when playing against Tottenham. When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first half shot was parried by Michel Vorm, Flamini was the surprise player who’d committed to chasing the shot in case of the ball coming back out, and he was rewarded with a left footed finish into the roof of the net.
Having made the point that sport remains unpredictable, there’s still plenty of occurrences that aren’t surprising. Moments after scoring, Flamini charged into Danny Rose and picked up a yellow card.
The Gunners did find themselves pinned back a bit after half-time as Tottenham looked to repeat the comeback victory they achieved in the most recent league meeting between the teams last season. Spurs got too much joy down Arsenal’s righ-hand side as Mathieu Debuchy struggled, and for a period in the second half, it felt as if Arsenal couldn’t keep hold of possession. The somewhat inevitable equaliser came when Calum Chambers could only divert a low cross past David Ospina.
At that stage, there only looked like one team who’d go on to win the match, and that team wasn’t Arsenal. Kieran Gibbs made a heroic goal-line clearance to deny Kane, and that moment seemed to spark Arsnal into life again. The introduction of Alexis into the fray gave the Gunners more of an outlet on the counter-attack, Aaron Ramsey was able to get on the ball a bit more and Arsenal looked to expose the pretty useless Fazio in the Spurs defence.
To avoid extra time, the match still needed someone to take responsibility and make the difference in the game. Step forward the Flame to set quite an average derby alight. As the ball dropped out of the North London sky 25 yards out from Tottenham’s goal with 12 minutes to go, it was the sort of inviting opportunity that usually ends with a ball volleyed miles back into the stands. Not if your name is Mathieu Flamini though. The Frenchman timed his approach perfectly and lashed a sweet volley into the bottom corner. The celebrations were wild after the initial shock of not believing that Mathieu Flamini had indeed just scored a beaut of a volley from outside the box.
For the remainder of the match, Arsenal were disciplined and sensible, and could have snatched a third goal on the break. Overall, there were plenty of positive performances for Arsene Wenger to take away from the game. After the suspect defensive showing in Zagreb, with the exception of the rusty Mathieu Debuchy, Arsenal’s back four looked pretty good with Kieran Gibbs particularly impressing. Per Mertesacker was a calming influence when Spurs built up a head of steam in the second half and, own goal aside, Calum Chambers looked much more assured than he did earlier in the season. 
But it was Mathieu Flamini’s night. He probably won’t get a game at the weekend and may still leave the club in the not too distant future, but he should now be a genuine cult hero. There haven’t been many better winning goals in a North London derby at a White Hart Lane. Mathieu Flamini, I salute you.

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SMR end-of-season review 2014-2015: The Midfielders

In the penultimate post reviewing the 2014-2015 season, I’m going to assess the performance of Arsenal’s midfielders. As with the previous ones, there’ll be a short review of each player’s season and a one-word summary.
7. Tomas Rosicky
It was a frustrating season for Tomas Rosicky as he didn’t get as much game time as he wanted, or deserved. Despite being one of the oldest players in the squad, he still brings energy to any game with his driving runs forward and turn of pace to change the tempo of an attack. During the random start to the season, Rosicky was unlucky to not play more often as Arsene Wenger seemed determined to shoe-horn Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere into the same starting XI, despite both not quite being at their best. When he did get an opportunity, Rosicky made telling contributions with goals against QPR and Everton, and a sublime performance away to Brighton in the FA Cup.
I’m pleased he’s got another year at the club, and hopefully Arsene Wenger won’t be so reluctant to use him because of the different dynamic Rosicky can still bring to any Arsenal performance.
One-word summary: Persistent
Rating: 6/10
8. Mikel Arteta
Mikel Arteta’s season was ruined by injury, and the form of Francis Coquelin in his position means that it is likely Arsenal will go through another season with the club captain operating mostly from the bench. People shouldn’t be so quick to write Arteta off though as he remains a steadying influence on the rest of the team. This was typified by the Anderlecht capitulation at home in the Champions League. Arsenal were playing ok and were 3-0 up when Arteta went down injured. Anderlecht scored with the Spaniard on the ground and went on to draw 3-3 as Arsenal’s midfield disappeared when Arteta left the field. He will still be a quality player to have in the squad next season.
One-word summary: Respected
Rating: 5/10
10. Jack Wilshere
Another midfielder whose season was disrupted by injury. As with everyone in the early part of the season, there were glimpses of Wilshere’s undoubted ability without any consistency. The brilliant performance and goal at home to Manchester City was mixed in with pretty drab performances like Anderlecht away. Apart from his finishing, Wilshere was playing well in the game he had his ankle mangled in against Manchester United, so to see him on the side lines again was incredibly frustrating. His return was excellent though. Given how settled the side looked around April, Wilshere made some energetic cameos off the bench force his way into the starting XI before scoring that thunderous, net-busting, goal against West Brom.
Forget the newspaper rumours about Manchester City, there’s no way Arsene Wenger would let a home-grown player with this amount of talent leave.
One-word summary: THRIKER
Rating: 6/10
11. Mesut Ozil
Mesut Ozil typifies the two halves of Arsenal’s season. He looked off the pace after the World Cup before getting injured at the beginning of October. Ozil also wasn’t helped by playing out on the left as Arsene Wenger tried to get all of his attacking midfielders in the team. The time off the pitch injured did allow Ozil to bulk up and look refreshed when he returned in January. Several gorgeous and instrumental performances followed including a goal and an assist at home to Aston Villa, a spirited showing in the attempted fightback in Monaco, the glorious free-kick against Liverpool and *that* flick against Hull City. He almost saved his best for the FA Cup final as he strolled around Wembley in complete control of the game. He seems to have got to the grips with the Premier League and is a joy to watch play.
One-word summary: Silky
Rating: 7.5/10
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
2014-2015 was the first season that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to hold down a regular starting place for a sustained period of time before injury (what else?) disrupted his progress. The Ox was one of the positives to emerge from the early season performances with some excellent displays. Before his last injury of the season, Oxlade-Chamberlain was superb at Old Trafford in the FA Cup as he bagged an assist and forced Louis van Gaal to substitute left-back Luke Shaw at half-time after he was rinsed by the Ox. He’ll still only be 21 at the start of the next season, so there’s plenty of time for further progress as he’s got all the attributes to be a phenomenal player for the club.
One-word summary: Maturing
Rating: 7/10
16. Aaron Ramsey
It was a strange season for Aaron Ramsey as it’ll probably go down as a disappointing one, but there were still some brilliant moments. He didn’t quite hit the goal scoring heights of the previous campaign, but it’s telling how high his standards have now become that he reached double figures from midfield and it’s still a disappointing campaign. Ramsey had moments where the old tendencies of giving the ball away and shooting wildly wide returned, but generally he was a driving force in the Arsenal midfield. Even when playing badly, he has a knack of making something happen or emerging on the scene at the right time to make a pass or have a shot. Overall, Ramsey is unrecognisable from the player he was two years ago. Oh, and there was that goal at Galatasaray. Phwoar.
One-word summary: Bearded
Rating: 7/10
19. Santi Cazorla
2014-2015 was the Spaniard’s best season for the club. Without Mesut Ozil for a lot of the first half of the season, Cazorla was able to be the attacking hub of the team again, which helped him regain his mojo after a slightly slow start to the season and the terrible World Cup efforts from Spain. The dominant showing at home to Newcastle, which was topped off by a glorious chipped goal and Paneka penalty, was a particular highlight in that period of the season. When Ozil returned, Cazorla remained central, but dropped deeper and showed what a sensational footballer he is. He would have been the obvious man to drop out when the German returned from injury, but Cazorla made himself un-droppable with consistent, brilliant performances. I believe that his display away to Manchester City was the best all-round performance from any midfielder in the Premier League in 2014-2015.
One-word summary: Majestic
Rating: 8/10
20. Mathieu Flamini
Flamini is now nothing more than cover in central midfield. He’s clearly a respected and popular member of the squad, and he did a good job in the previous season after signing on a free transfer, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that some of Arsenal’s worst performances in 2014-2015 had Mathieu Flamini at the base of the midfield. He did provide one of my funniest moments of the season though by coming on to play on the right wing against West Ham and scoring a tap-in a minute after arriving into the game. You can never question him for commitment or effort on the pitch, but he’s now the third-choice holding player in the squad.
One-word summary: Usurped
Rating: 4/10
24. Abou Diaby
The case of Abou Diaby makes me very sad. He could have been majestic in Arsenal’s midfield for many years, but some bad tackles and his body letting him down has meant his career at Arsenal could be at an end. He did get more game time in 2014-2015 than in the previous season, but it was only by a matter of minutes and still totalled less than 70 minutes. It’s unlikely he’ll play in the Arsenal first team again, but that isn’t a reflection on his character and commitment to try and play again.
One-word summary: Saddening
Rating: 2/10
34. Francis Coquelin
The story of the season. I’d almost forgotten he was at the club until he suddenly appeared at left-back in the Capital One Cup against Southampton. A loan move to Charlton seemed like the final step towards a permanent move away from the club in January before injuries to overs intervened, and suddenly the Coq was in the squad for a Premier League game. When he got his chance, he took it with interception after interception, tackle after tackle and disciplined displays that took pressure off the rest of the team. Like Cazorla, his performances made it impossible to drop him from the starting XI. Whether Coquelin can maintain his high standards into next season will be interesting to see, but he thoroughly deserves his chance to continue to patrol the midfield after a stellar second half of the season.
One-word summary: Immense
Rating: 8/10

Rotating Gunners keep winning run going

Now Arsene Wenger has key players back from injury, his team are showing their ability to compete in multiple competitions as the squad looks fresh heading into the business end of the season. Although likely to go out of the Champions League in the coming week, Arsenal are otherwise well positioned to carry momentum through to the end of May.
Arsenal made five changes to their starting line-up in the FA Cup win at Old Trafford last Monday, and another five to the team to face West Ham United. But these alterations didn’t affect the fluidity and confidence of the team. It feels like a real luxury to Arsenal fans to have these options, and it means individual players don’t have to be played relentlessly and get burned out. With players knowing there is serious competition for places in the team, performances are improving and beginning to bring out the best in some of the squad.
Two of the players that came in to the side against West Ham were Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, and both were influential in a relatively comfortable win. After such a wonderful season last year, it was always going to be tough for Ramsey to follow it up with another stellar campaign. The Welshman has been in and out with injury, but after returning from his latest setback against Manchester United, Ramsey looked to be back to his best as he rampaged around the pitch against the Hammers. With the safety net of Francis Coquelin sitting alongside him in midfield, Ramsey was able to make the late bursts into the box that were so effective in 2013-2014.
Ramsey’s link-up play with Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil was a feature of Arsenal’s play in the first half of last season when they topped the league, and it was at its fluid best against West Ham. Giroud was providing the strength and subtle flicks, while Ozil and Ramsey floated around him, pulling defenders around.
It was this combination that brought Arsenal’s opening goal. After the Gunners spurned some good chances, Olivier Giroud seemed fed up of the messing about by taking the ball from Ramsey in the box in first half injury time, and slamming the ball past goalkeeper Adrian via the post. It was a thunderous finish, and one that emphasised the confidence that the Frenchman is playing with right now. The debacle against Monaco is a long way behind him.
West Ham rarely threatened, but Arsenal still went into the last 20 minutes without killing the game off. But that changed when Aaron Ramsey completed an energetic performance with a brilliantly worked goal. Giroud cleverly left a throw-in to run to Ramsey, and then returned the ball back to the Welshman to fire in after a swift one-two.
Both Giroud and Ramsey are benefitting from competition and the ability to rotate players. I doubt Giroud was chuffed to see Danny Welbeck start the quarter-final at Old Trafford on Monday, but his response against West Ham was excellent. While Ramsey has been out injured, he’s seen Santi Cazorla dominating matches from the centre of the pitch. The all-action showing on Saturday was a excellent reminder of the box-to box presence Ramsey can provide.
Cazorla himself was given a rest ahead of the Monaco mission on Tuesday, but he did come off the bench to link up brilliantly with Giroud and slide the ball across the box to give Mathieu Flamini a tap-in to seal a 3-0 win. Flamini was returning from injury, and was sent on by Arsene Wenger to see out the game playing on the right-wing. He couldn’t believe his luck to get such a simple finish for his first touch.
The man who started on the right was probably very envious of Flamini waltzing onto the field and immediately scoring. With everyone else stepping up their game, it’s somehow not quite happening for Theo Walcott. He missed some good opportunities in the first half and didn’t provide much else in his all-round game, except for being a threat with pace in-behind the defence. With contract talks ongoing, and questions beginning to emerge about his future, hopefully Walcott will follow the rest of the squad and be inspired to face up to the competition for places, otherwise Arsenal might feel they need to cash in on Theo this summer.
Overall, it was a game that emphasised how much more confidence Arsenal compared to earlier in the season. The players have finally clicked into gear, and while everything looked a bit forced and scrappy in the first part of the campaign, some of the slick passing and movement looked effortless on Saturday.
As fans, we shouldn’t take scoring these goals for granted. Sometimes the intricate passing game doesn’t come off, and it looks quite bad, but when it comes together, as it did three times on Saturday, it is gorgeous to watch. The same again in Monte Carlo on Tuesday would secure an unprecedented recovery to go with Arsenal’s beautiful football.