Arsenal survive despite Giroud's moment of madness

I’m a big fan of Olivier Giroud. Too often he gets criticised for being too slow or making bad decisions, but it’s been no coincidence that Arsenal have looked more dangerous going forward since his return from injury. His link-up play is good and his finishing is improving. Yet what he did on Boxing Day against QPR was indefensible and put Arsenal under needless pressure.
At the point in the second half when Giroud put his head into the face of Nedum Onuoha, Arsenal were cruising, and it looked like a matter of time before a second goal would come. What was annoying was how ‘Arsenal’ it suddenly felt. The doubts crept in as the negative narrative to an easy game suddenly appeared. Playing a team without a point away from home all season, miss a penalty, finally score, control the game, then throw it away after a brainless red card. Thank goodness, then, for Alexis Sanchez and Tomas Rosicky.
In his first Premier League start of the season, Rosicky showed why many fans have been questioning his lack of game-time. Despite an injury for the last month, there were plenty of matches earlier in the season when the Czech’s turn of pace and control of the ball could have been invaluable during some patchy team performances. Thrust back into action on Boxing Day with a plethora of midfield injuries, Rosicky helped Arsenal control and game and scored the vital goal as things were threatening to take a turn for the worst. As others may have panicked around him, Rosicky’s experience came to the fore as he timed his run forward perfectly to finish off a mazy run from Alexis Sanchez, giving Arsenal the breathing space of a 2-0 lead.
Other midfielders will be returning from injury soon, but I hope Rosicky is used more as, despite being 34, he can still turn a game and inject pace into a move from midfield.
It was fitting that Alexis Sanchez bagged an excellent assist for Rosicky’s goal as the Chilean was the main threat again for the Gunners. He will need resting at some point, and I thought the game with QPR could have been the ideal opportunity as the trip to West Ham will kick off less than 48 hours after the game with the Hoops, but Alexis is invaluable at the moment. Even with ten men, Arsenal carried a threat going forward because of Alexis.
It seems one of the only things missing from his game is penalty taking. After winning the early spot kick, Alexis took it himself and couldn’t beat Robert Green with a weak shot that wasn’t right in the corner. After scoring two penalties this month, Santi Cazorla should have pulled rank on Alexis, despite the Chilean being awesome at almost everything else. There was a similar situation earlier in the season against Anderlecht when Alexis wanted to take the penalty, but Mikel Arteta strode forward and scored as the designated taker.
But, if not observing the order of penalty takers is the only main criticism of Alexis Sanchez, that’s something that is easily changed. The missed penalty only served as further motivation to Alexis as he continued to terrorise Armand Traore before ghosting in behind the full-back to head in the opening goal.
There were plenty of other positive performances around the pitch for Arsenal as Santi Cazorla played well alongside Rosicky, while the back four did well under pressure at the end of the game. Nacho Monreal acquitted himself well alongside Per Mertesacker, and but for an absolutely ridiculous penalty decision against Mathieu Debuchy, the Gunners would probably have kept a clean sheet, even with ten men.
There were understandable nerves at the end of the game, especially considering how a 2-1 lead was thrown away at Anfield last Sunday, but there were signs that lessons had been learnt. Players threw themselves at shots to make blocks, and there was even a brilliantly cynical foul from Francis Coquelin in injury time to stop a dangerous attack.
It was still all much harder work than it should have been though, and that is mainly because of Giroud’s moment of madness putting the team under pressure. At a time of the season when a manager needs as many players available as possible to rotate with matches bunched together, being with the Frenchman for three games will be incredibly frustrating for Arsene Wenger. Closing out the win will raise spirits, but Wenger needs to rally the troops for tomorrow’s trip to West Ham, check who is fit enough and hope the likes of Alexis can cope with the demands of back-to-back festive games.
The win was most welcome, but hopefully Giroud’s stupidity doesn’t cost Arsenal in the next two league games, as away wins over West Ham and Southampton should move the Gunners back into the top four.


Disappointing cup exit shows rustiness of fringe players

No cup defeat is nice or welcome, but it’s hard for Arsenal to have any complaints about going out of the Capital One Cup on Tuesday after the 2-1 defeat against Southampton. The Saints looked like a more cohesive team with the much-changed Gunners line-up not creating enough to merit going through.
The main concern for Gooners from the performance was the showing from the fringe players in Arsene Wenger’s squad that needed the game time. It’s easy to criticism them, but in fairness it is difficult to come in from the cold and perform at your best without some match practise, especially against a well organised and in-form Southampton side. But, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable of Arsene Wenger to have expected more from Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski and Joel Campbell.
Rosicky’s off-colour performance wasn’t because of a lack of effort as the Czech captain buzzed around the field in his normal style, but he was just off the pace and his judgement wasn’t as sharp as he’d want, which unfortunately led to Rosicky mistiming a challenge in the penalty area and gifting the visitors their equaliser from the spot.
As for Lukas Podolski, he seemed to disappear as the match went on, and he was hardly involved in the early stages as it was. The German can be an incredibly frustrating player to watch as he is a good finisher and has an absolute hammer of a left foot, but he’s always had a strange ability to go missing. He seemed to pass that trait onto Joel Campbell in the first half, as the Costa Rican didn’t take his opportunity to stake his claim to be more involved in the first team. Campbell saw more of a ball in the second half but Arsenal looked so much more dangerous as soon as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to replace him on the wing.
Of the fringe first teamers who got a run out on Tuesday, incredibly, the least rusty was Abou Diaby. Sitting deep in midfield, the Frenchman sprayed a few good passes from deep positions and gave a tidy performance in his first start since 2012-2013. I’m a big Diaby fan and am desperate for him to get some luck and stay fit for a sustained period of time. If he does, he showed fans on Tuesday that he can a valuable option in central midfield with a physical presence that’s unmatched by other midfielders at the club.
Despite the defeat, Abou Diaby wasn’t the only positive from Tuesday. With the North London derby on the horizon, I was staggered to see Alexis Sanchez start the game, but the Chilean gave another example of his considerable talent with an absolute peach of a free-kick. He lacked support from others around him up front for most of the evening, but he still looked like the most likely Arsenal player to make anything happen. He’s still acclimatising to English football, but four goals so far for Arsenal is a good start. He’d bring the house down with another on Saturday.
In a competition where Arsene Wenger usually likes to blood the youngsters, it was mainly the back four which had a youthful appearance with three 19 year olds alongside Francis Coquelin, who had to fill in at left back. Considering the inexperience, they dealt with Southampton pretty well as it was only a penalty and a long range thunderbolt that gave the visitors the win. Isaac Hayden stood out in particular with an assured first start for the club.
Even though they did well, the lack of cover in defence was exposed by Wenger having to field such an inexperienced back four. They all acquitted themselves well, but Arsenal shouldn’t be in a position where a collection of 19 year olds are the next in line after a couple of injury in defence.
Considering the lack of cover at the back, not having an extra game in the next round of the Capital One Cup could help the squad stay fresh, but in midfield and attack, there are plenty of Arsenal players who could have used a cup run to boost their chances of playing in more first team games. It’s a shame Arsenal are out, but a derby win on Saturday and this game will be quickly forgotten.

The SMR Arsenal Squad Review – Midfielders

With the season over and a trophy in the cabinet, I’m going to assess the season for each member of the Arsenal squad and rate them. I’m sure there’ll be some disagreements about some of my ratings, so feel free to comment at the bottom with your thoughts. Moving up the pitch, it’s the midfielders.
7. Tomas Rosicky
The Czech has been an excellent player to have around the squad in 2013/2014, and is someone that can be relied on in big games. Rosicky can be brought on to control the tempo of the game if Arsenal are leading, or he can add urgency to the team with direct bursts forward. As he moves towards the latter stages of his career, it’s great to see Rosicky making an impact at the club considering his previous injury problems.
Rosicky is developing an excellent knack of scoring against Tottenham, contributing two crackers this season. The FA Cup goal was a result of his relentless pressing high up the pitch before a calm finish, and the goal at White Hart Lane was a rocket. It was one of the few Arsenal goals that made me stand up and shout THRIKER!
Season Rating: 7/10
8. Mikel Arteta
Arteta is beginning to divide some opinion amongst Arsenal fans, with some suggesting he’s getting a bit old and slows the play down, but others saying he plays a key role in keeping the team ticking over. Arteta is undoubtedly one of the players that Arsene Wenger trusts most as the Spaniard does quietly do a very important job for the team.
He’s not the big destructive defensive midfielder that many want, but Arteta will rarely be found out of position and putting the team under pressure by misplacing a pass. His penalty taking is also excellent, with the twice taken one against Everton in the cup showing his coolness under pressure. He’ll gradually play less as he gets older, but Arteta remains a big part of the Arsenal squad as a respected vice-captain.
Season Rating: 7/10
10. Jack Wilshere
It’s been a strange season for Jack Wilshere. He’s had his fair share of injury problems again, but there have been real signs of improvement. Wilshere hasn’t been dominating games as many fans thought he would do in his career, but like Aaron Ramsey was last season, he’s almost in the consolidating period after a very long injury.
Wilshere has added more goals and assists to his game this season, with the brace against Marseille being particularly impressive, along with the finish at the end of the liquid football goal against Norwich.
Next season will be a big one for Wilshere. If he can stay fit, he can build on the good progress made in 2013/2014.
Season Rating: 6.5/10
11. Mesut Ozil
The German attracted, and still attracts, too much criticism for his performances in 2013/2014. Expectations were always going to be high after arriving for £42 million, and whilst he might not have lived up to them for some people, Ozil still had a huge impact on Arsenal.
He clocked up assists and brought more out of others around him. This season was always going to be about adapting for Ozil, and the signs are good that he’ll be even better next season. His control is incredible, and his passing is not far short of Bergkamp-levels at times. That fact he’s at the club will make Arsenal a more attractive tea, to join for players in the summer transfer window, as they know they’ll get chances with Ozil in the team.
Season Rating: 7.5/10
15. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
It’s been a frustrating season for the Ox. A lengthy injury on the first day of the season was far from ideal, especially after looking dangerous and getting an assist early in that match.
He recovered well to make a difference in the second half of season, especially in the cup run against Liverpool, Everton and Wigan. I’m not sure about the insistence that he’ll ultimately be a central midfielder, as even though Oxlade-Chamberlain is good enough to play there, he’s at his best when committing defenders and running into space. Hopefully he’ll be fit to play at the World Cup, and be fit enough next season to further develop. The Oz is an exciting player and one that makes things happen when he plays.
Season Rating: 6/10
16. Aaron Ramsey
What else is there to say about Aaron Ramsey? The transformation has been incredible. He’s been confident, committed and sensational in almost every game he’s played. It’s just a huge shame he was out for four months of the season. He’s gone from being a semi-reliable squad player to a world class game-changer. More of the same next season please, Rambo.
Season Rating: 9/10
19. Santi Cazorla
Cazorla wasn’t quite at his influential best in 2013/2014, and that was partly from not having much of a summer break following a long first season in the Premier League. His quick feet still dazzled as he was deployed more on the flank than he was in his debut season, because of the arrival of Ozil.
He can occasionally go missing in games, but his technical quality and ability to use both feet mean he’s always a danger in games. The FA Cup final free-kick was also stunning. Forget any criticism of the goalkeeper, that was a hell of strike. At his best, Cazorla is a beautiful player to watch.
Season Rating: 7/10
20. Mathieu Flamini
It seemed like a slightly strange signing at the time, but bringing Mathieu Flamini back to the club was a good move from Arsene Wenger. He brought passion, organisation and commitment to the team at the start of the season, especially when Arsenal seemed fragile at that time.
He appeared less in the second half of the season, and as much as it was funny seeing him get booked every game, the ill-discipline did cost the team with the red card at Southampton. However, anyone who comes on for a second North London derby, kicks lumps out of a lot of Spurs players and pushes someone out the way just to get a clear run-up to fly in for another tackle against Tottenham is an instant hero.
Season Rating: 6.5/10
24. Abou Diaby
It was brilliant to see him even play twenty minutes this season. Any sustained playing time Arsenal get out of him next season will be a bonus. Diaby does have a huge amount of talent, and incredible motivation to comeback from what he’s been through, but his body does not support him being a professional footballer.
Season Rating: 4/10
29. Kim Kallstrom
He was not the striker Arsenal fans wanted in January, and having been signed with a broken back, it was going to be difficult for Kim Kallstrom to make an impact at the club. He made a few useful Premier League appearances and scored his penalty in the FA Cup semi-final. Kallstrom didn’t do much else, but did as much as fans could have hoped for from him.
Season Rating: 5/10
31. Ryo Miyaichi
Made no real impact on the first team except for some Capital One Cup appearances. Unfortunately for him, I can’t see Ryo making it at Arsenal.
Season Rating: 2/10
44. Serge Gnabry
Gnabry did make some encouraging performances in the first team, and scored an excellent first goal at Swansea. He still has a lot to learn but Gnabry is an exciting player for the future. It’s good for him to have a strong German connection at the club as well.
Season Rating: 5.5/10
Listen to the Sam’s Match Reports podcast end-of-season awards special!
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3