Arsenal travel to The Britannia Stadium this afternoon knowing that a win will take them to within three points of the Premier League summit. Or if you prefer, all but confirm third place at the very least as a finishing position for this season.
Much of the pre-match focus is on Aaron Ramsey – which must be looking at the world upside down. Surely the focus should be on Ryan Shawcross and his, ahem, abilities, particularly in light of the abysmal challenge by Charlie Adam on Gareth Bale yesterday. As much as you may mock Bale because (a) he is Welsh and (b) he is Welsh, no wait, a Tiny Tot, an apparent broken leg is nothing to wish upon someone.
The attention given to Ramsey is somewhat understandable, former Stoke manager Lou Macari suggested that if Wenger was going to play Ramsey, Pulis ought to drop Shawcross. Perhaps that was the rationale behind Arsène’s apparent bonhomie towards his counterpart and his serial letter writing Chairman.
Would the thought even have entered Pulis’ mind. Perhaps as he watched Manchester City crumble in the second half, he might have remembered that a straight red card today will see the culprit miss the FA Cup Final.
Arsenal have no concerns about Ramsey, mentally or physically. The latter is going well, his mobility unlikely to be impaired in the same way that Eduardo’s was. Perhaps that is the reason for the continued niggling injuries the Croat has suffered since then. It was that which I felt impacted upon his mindset – I’ll never get fully fit again – and saw the premature end to his Arsenal career.
Onto today’s team. Injury news is not much different to last weekend, Fabregas out, Nasri similarly unavailable, Djourou and Clichy both having fitness tests to assess their suitability to contest the lineout. It leaves Arsenal with the prospect of Thomas Vermaelen starting this clash. Which is no bad thing for if he can survive such a robust encounter, he should be fit and raring to go next season…
Squillaci, to the despair of many, will most likely partner Koscielny this afternoon in the absence of Djourou. Much as I would Vermaelen to do so, I cannot see it being risked, more likely the gentle reintroduction of matches against Aston Villa and Fulham.
He might be called upon as left back though if Gael Clichy does not pass his fitness test. Apparently Kieran Gibbs is not unhappy due to lack of matches but because his pay is significantly less than he believes it ought to be. According to a newspaper report that is. With someone who is on the fringes of the first team it seems inconceivable that he would be looking to enhance his contract, it is not logical.
But logic plays little part in footballers contracts.
Back to the line-up. I would guess Wenger will go with,
Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou (Squillaci), Clichy (Gibbs); Ramsey, Song, Wilshere; Walcott, van Persie, Arshavin
Were Wenger so inclined, he could move van Persie to the right or left, a position that he has fulfilled for the Dutch, with Bendtner or Chamakh occupying a central role. He won’t though as this will be changing his team to suit the opposition, not something Arsène is noted for doing against teams lower down the league.
Key is a win. Arsenal have been hit and miss in games that they should have won this season. Getting some consistency towards the end of the season can be used as a solid base for next. And still the outside chance…
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.
Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke City
1 – 0 Squillaci (8)
Sèbastien Squillaci scored a vital winner to close the gap on Manchester United at the top of the table, one point now the difference. The win came at a price; Theo Walcott definitely misses Sunday’s Carling Cup Final whilst Cesc Fàbregas joined Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny as doubtful, the Spainard’s hamstring tightened, the player withdrawn as a precaution.
The outcome was of little surprise. Stoke were always going to be the least adventurous of visitors to The Emirates; they did not disappoint. Fàbregas’ substitution was pivotal, Arsenal lost their most influential player yet Stoke did not capitalise on that, only Carew drew a meaningful save from Szczesny.
Shawcross’ header hit Djourou in the face and Pennant rippled the sidenetting their other chances; one shot on target during ninety minutes sums up Tony Pulis’ attitude to this match. Defensive, dour and unadventurous.
Arsenal were rampant in the opening twenty minutes with Theo Walcott the chief antagonist. In the second minute, Wilshere and Fàbregas combined on the edge of the area, the Arsenal captain found a precise pass into the path of Walcott whose shot thundered into the inside of the post and back to the relative safety of a Stoke defender.
Moments later Walcott was played in for another effort which he dragged wide, Bendtner the provider on this occasion. The duo would once more combine, this time Begovic stopped Walcott in his tracks. For this spell in the game, Stoke were as much helpless as hopeless.
The threatened breakthrough duly arrived. Organisation at set-pieces is the strength of sides which deploy dullard tactics; in the eighth minute, Stoke were shambolic. Wilshere’s corner caused consternation but was flicked clear to Bendtner, close to the by-line. The Dane returned the ball into the six yard box where the unmarked Squillaci headed home.
So much for the aerial superiority of the visitors. If they could not win those battles, there was no hope for them. Or that is how it seemed at this point in the match. Five or so minutes later, the spark of the match would die a little with Fàbregas’ withdrawal. Arsenal enjoyed more possession of the ball than is usual; in excess of 75% for the first half, reducing to a trifling 60% overall.
That dominance did not negate Stoke entirely. A lot of the ball that Arsenal had led to blind alleys, the chances not created to match that superiority. Warnings were few and far between but John Carew enjoyed his encounters with Arsenal whilst at Valencia, Szczesny’s one handed save to his right prevented an equaliser from the Norwegian. It is another promising sign for the Pole; little to do during the evening yet alert to opposition forays.
Stoke’s capitulation in the first half would only lead to a heavy defeat if repeated in the second. A change was wrought, they realised that attack could bring rewards and within ten minutes very nearly did. Pennant crossed from the right, Shawcross met it with a firm header, Djourou’s face diverting the ball to safety.
A more traditional route for Stoke goals emerged minutes later as Delap hurled the ball into the area, Huth’s header cleared the bar and almost landed cleanly in the first row of supporters.
Arsenal responded. Jack Wilshere shot from distance straight at Begovic whilst Theo Walcott could not find the right finish following good work from Arshavin on the right. Just as it seemed Arsenal would be upping their gears once more, Whitehead brought Walcott down; unlike Clichy and Walters, the Stoke player would escape a deserved yellow card for his foul.
With the introduction of Denilson, the width Arsenal had previously enjoyed disappeared. Arsenal were prepared to close the game out, nick a second if possible but to enjoy a clean sheet. Pennant’s late free kick almost put paid to that aspiration, it seems a long time ago that he graced Highbury with his only three Arsenal goals against Southampton on a balmy May evening.
Post match, Arsène was pleased with the points, the ‘professional’ manner in which there were achieved. The injury to Cesc is being assessed today, his participation on Sunday in doubt. As it is both he and the manager will be happy that United have been caught, even if temporarily, but the pressure is on them with wins in their two games vital, before Sunderland visit The Emirates next weekend.
I’ll leave Arsène to sum up his view of Stoke,
I was quite surprised how intelligently they defended
Me? I’ve never forgiven them for Terry Conroy. ’til Tomorrow.
Never has a team visiting The Emirates been more appropriate. The weather is dull, horrible, drab and wet. Which is exactly what Stoke City are. As well as being incredibly generous as they have rolled over and lost on their last eight visits to Arsenal, a run stretching back almost thirty years.
Wholesale changes can be expected to the team that took the field at Orient, an XI resembling that which took on Barcelona will be enough to beat tonight’s opponents.
Arsène though is paying the price for a congested fixture schedule as Robin van Persie and Laurent Koscielny are both missing for tonight, neither guaranteed to return for the Carling Cup Final on Sunday either. It means a reprieve for Sebastien Squillaci tonight and Arsène praying that no further injuries are suffered.
Whilst Manchester United’s game in hand is against Wigan, it is a brief respite judging by their upcoming fixture list. Arsenal has more volume but United’s tougher journey’s. Frequently the media has pointed out that this fortnight is big for Arsenal’s season. It is but they are not involved in the biggest games; United are.
If they emerge with nine out of nine from their next three fixtures, the opportunities to close the gap will be fewer. United’s next two away games are at Anfield and Stamford Bridge. It would be no surprise if they won both such is their opponents form but equally they have not won at the latter since 2002. Neither Arsenal or United will win every game between now and the end of the season. Who draws the fewest will be key.
For tonight, Arsène has noted a simple tactic to neuter the visitors threat,
What is important for us against Stoke is we [make sure] we have the ball. The more we have the ball, the less they will be dangerous in the air. We will try to dominate the game, as long as we have the ball they cannot be dangerous.
In picking on the aerial threat, Wenger makes telling observations about Stoke. Firstly, they are not so much of a threat on the ground. Secondly, he believes that the media stereotype of them as uncultured long ball merchants is not far off the mark. Lastly, Johan Djourou cannot be rested tonight as he is key to dealing with any aerial threat and there is no-one else to play centre back.
The Britannia Stadium has been a nightmare for Arsenal goalkeepers in recent seasons, unable to deal with the distinguished tactic of hoofing a ball long or throwing it for a considerable distance. Despite knowing what is coming, Almunia and Fabianski struggled until last season in the League fixture when the Spaniard coped to a degree. Szczesny has the frame to deal with any interlopers into his six-yard box and needs to ensure that they are intimidated to do so.
The team I would expect Wenger to start with is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Fàbregas, Song, Wilshere; Walcott, Chamakh, Nasri
Tempting as it might be for Wenger to go with Bendtner, he perservered with Arshavin in his spell of indifferent form and it is hard to see him doing any different with Chamakh. The Moroccan did not let him down when van Persie was out injured earlier this season but his lack of goals recently will play on his mind.
It is important for him and the team that he does not let this overwhelm his thoughts; the pressure is on others to chip in with goals already. A misfiring forward only elevates that situation. Tonight is the sort of team whom he will enjoy playing against. Neither Huth or Shawcross is dominant in the air despite their size; Chamakh will only be successful if the right supply is provided though.
Whichever way it happens, a win is imperative tonight. A sneaky one-goal deflection does not count anymore than a flair-filled one-goal win; they still bring about three points.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.
Thirty seven years ago on this day, Arsenal’s first European campaign came unstuck with defeat in Liege condemning the club to a dismal Christmas in 1963. A number of people – a sizeable number – believe that this year will be no different, a European exit confirmed on paper with a re-run of last season’s quarter-final to take place in 2011.
No doubt about it, this was the toughest draw that Arsenal could have been given at present. Whether it is as Spring beckons remains to be seen; a lot of football is to be played between now and the first leg. Either side could crumble in form and the fickle hand of injury fate may yet intervene to burden the respective managers. Between now and the outcome of that tie, the Premier League, FA Cup and Carling Cup will all assume more importance.
Attention turns to this afternoon and the opportunity to return to the summit of the Premier League presents itself. Stoke City arrive at The Emirates not having won at Arsenal since 1981. Their five subsequent visits have seen them concede sixteen goals and score just two. If the nadir of the 1997/98 season happened with defeat on 13th December 1997, the same can be said of the home defeat to Newcastle in 2001 on today’s date. That too sparked an unbeaten run that ended with the title being delivered. Perhaps this time around we could take today as being the start of the run, sort of foregoing the formalities if you like.
Of course, the fixture is overshadowed by last season’s encounter at The Britannia Stadium, fires fuelled by the news this week that Shawcross is to be given extra protection by minders, media fires unnecessarily fanned by the club especially as Arsene has sought to defuse the situation beforehand. Still, it merely serves to reinforce opinions about them in the same way that the Stoke fan shown on national television this week repeatedly kicking his own head does.
On the back of the defeat at Old Trafford, the Arsenal side needs to be refreshed. Rarely would I suggest change just for the sake of it but today is one of those occasions. With a ‘traditionally English’ outlook from their manager, Stoke’s approach will need rigorous attention from the defence. Djourou is better in the air than Squillaci and Koscielny, which ought to be enough of a reason for his inclusion. Whilst that may be harsh on the one who is dropped to make way for him, some of the clearances on Monday were woeful. Not that the central pairing were the only culprits in that respect but distribution needs to be excellent for Arsenal’s style of play to be completely effective.
Wenger admitted in his press conference that a win today can only be forged on the back of a solid defensive display. That applies throughout the team with forwards defending from the front, pressing their opponents quickly to force them to surrender possession cheaply. Equally, the midfield need to reassert themselves defensively, Alex Song working in tandem with his partners to ensure that when two push forward one stays back. All of these simple matters failed to materialise at Old Trafford. A lack of concentration, application, whatever you want to call it but they need to have been resolved before kick-off.
There is a nervousness surrounding Arsenal’s home league performances this Autumn; it gives hope to visiting teams, hope that can be crushed with one convincing victory. That may not be reflected in the scoreline as Stoke have yet to concede more than two goals in any one Premier League game this season. It is not the sign of an impregnable defence, simply one that makes opponents work for their goals rather than cheaply shipping them in matches.
With that in mind, Arsene will want a passing midfield in full flow. I would make just one change from Monday, bringing back Cesc to start, the hope being that an unassailable lead could be established by the hour whereupon he can be replaced. His inclusion at Rosicky’s expense would be no surprise. Equally, dropping Arshavin, switching Nasri to the left and bring Walcott on the right would present an opportunity to stretch the play to the wings more crisply than has happened recently.
Caution should be applied to that theory though. Too often in recent weeks, gaps have appeared between the midfield and defence where attack has been too prevalent on the minds of the players. It is all well and good pressing forward but minding the gap should not be the sole preserve of rail passengers.
Wenger is limited with other changes, numerically and keeping the team understandings going. Bendtner is unlikely to be involved with a child expected soon – perhaps already arrived by the time you read this – whilst goalkeeping duties might be continued by Szczesny with Fabianski’s hip injury not fully recovered. Crosses were dealt with comfortably by the younger Pole on Monday and a number of those can be expected from the flanks today, even before Delap gets a throw in opportunity.
The line-up I would like Wenger to go with is:
Szczesny; Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Wilshere; Walcott, Chamakh, Nasri
van Persie might start instead of Walcott which would make the formation a more notional 4-1-3-2 but I suspect Arsene is still looking to bring him back in stages. The same could be said of Fabregas whose exclusion might bring about a reprieve for Arshavin but that seems unlikely. Had victory been achieved at Old Trafford, there would have been a strong case for an unchanged side. It was not and the lack of drive suggests changes are needed.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.
The usual suspects have lined up to defend Ryan Shawcross’ challenge on Aaron Ramsey, blithely dismissing it as ‘one of those things, football is so fast‘. It is not one of those things because football is faster now, nor is it acceptable because there are ‘40-50 tackles which are just as bad‘ – Alan Hansen fearing that Steven Gerrard will be pulled up for his usual two-footed lunge at some point.
As is normal, apologists are stating that the manner in which Arsenal play invites a more robust approach from opponents. In admitting that, English players and coaches roundly invite themselves severe criticism for failing to improve the native talents to control and pass a football.
If that is the standard that the English have, little wonder that Arsene has brought in substantial numbers of overseas players, the legacy of Charles Hughes and Howard Wilkinson stretches down the years.
Some in the press box are castigating Shawcross, principally for recklessness. Martin Samuel and Patrick Barclay (on Sunday Supplement) agree that Arsenal are targetted, that Wenger does have a point when he complained of the intimidatory tactics employed over the years.
Nothing can be done about it on the part of the Football Association in terms of the tactics adopted by the Premier League teams. The Laws of the Game exist and provide ample opportunity for officials to clamp down on illegal tackles. A spate of matches where the opposition end up with 9 or less players would quickly get the message through and must be applied across the league evenly. No favours asked, none given, simple enforcement of the laws.
The impact on the squad of Ramsey’s injury remains to be seen. On Saturday it seems to have been motivational, reinforcing the desire to take three points to close the gap to the top. Galvanising as it was for 30 minutes, long-term benefits may not be so apparent. The desire to be Champions was there in the first place, the mental strength to win should accompany that. Perhaps a ‘siege mentality’ may emerge and add a crucial 5% to that which they already possess.
The players would not be so crass as to say that they are going to win it for Ramsey; they wanted the title anyway. This incident can be the bonding moment that the team want, a way of focussing in the short-term at least. Thereafter, as the personal feelings subside from their initial concern and anger – tied to the ongoing recovery of the Ramsey – momentum can be built.
With the internationals taking up this week, Arsene has little time to work on the players. Next weekend Burnley visit The Emirates, like Sunderland a team that is struggling to buy a win or even a point, the departure of Owen Coyle a key moment. That provides an outlet for Arsenal to continue the strength of performance that was shown in the last 70 minutes at the weekend.
Arsenal has made a page available for messages of goodwill to be passed to Aaron Ramsey, here.
Arsenal return to the scene of the crime this afternoon, DCI Arsene Wenger must use the evidence of the recent FA Cup defeat to provide the answers that will bring about a victory for the first time in the Britannia Stadium. The match may not be as intense, the outcome no less important to the eventual winners as Arsenal will know whether or not it is an opportunity to close the gap on Chelsea, by the time kick-off comes.
Wenger has key players missing but the line-up this afternoon will be stronger than that which took the pitch in January’s encounter. Diaby, Gallas and Arshavin are missing, failing to recover from their injuries, set to return next weekend. Stoke had a tough FA Cup replay in midweek but any fatigue will be compensated by the victory, comfortable as it unfolded. They will hold few surprises for Arsenal, their style of play does not alter, it is up to the visitors to counter this.
A performance which replicates the win at The Reebok ought to do the trick. Battling with their opponents, imposing the passing game on them and retaining possession. Stoke are not one-dimensional, merely capitalising on their strengths. If they changed their style to that of Arsenal, they would be buried before half-time.
The Arsenal back four will be crucial this afternoon. They must cut the width that allows Stoke to put crosses into the box and hold a steady line if it does happen, not get dragged out of position, permitting space for wide players or central strikers. Almunia has to ‘own’ his penalty area, be assertive in coming for crosses or set plays, Vermaelen and Campbell must attack the ball rather than waiting for it, hesitancy which led to Stoke opening the scoring in the FA Cup.
Equally, the midfield must be aware of the challenges for winning the ball if it is not cleared in the first instance. As much as Stoke capitalise on Delap’s throws, their goals come in equal measure from a failure of defenders to clear the ball properly.
For that reason, I think it will be a surprise if Eboue does not start this afternoon ahead of Walcott. Theo’s saving grace for this fixture will be as a pacey outlet to stretch Stoke on the counter-attack although Eboue is capable of providing that. If the Ivorian plays, it allows Cesc more attacking licence; Denilson, Song and Eboue provides a solid cover for the back four but they must concentrate in this aspect, tracking back diligently, a folly of youth on the Brazilian’s part at times.
That side of their game should not overshadow how they contribute to the side in attack, Denilson’s passing is good, like Song happy to play a simple ball to retain possession rather than cheaply ceding it. Perhaps he should score more goals; his shooting from range is better than his goal return suggests, Everton will attest to that. No doubt this will bring forth a spew of complaints that Denilson is not good enough for Arsenal; get over it, he is.
The line-up I suspect will start is:
Almunia; Sagna, Campbell, Vermaelen, Clichy; Eboue, Song, Denilson; Fabregas, Nasri, Bendtner
With a bench of:
Fabianski, Silvestre, Ramsey, Rosicky, Eduardo, Walcott, Traore
The club’s half-year results were released against a backdrop of Portsmouth’s administration and UEFA reporting on debt levels in football. There were some stunningly ill-informed comments about the state of the finances, concepts which were dubious in their rationale and focussing too much on the fact that £100m was in the bank on 30th November, leading to more criticism – some of which was just for the sake of it – over the fact that Wenger did not spend half of that on players in the January transfer window.
Uefa makes no bones about the fact that clubs are going to be heavily scrutinised over their finances and licences refused, meaning participation in the Champions and Europa Leagues will not happen. Arsenal has to ensure the longevity of the club and is following a path that ensures that whilst competing for trophies.
Few questioning the debt pay down are probably even aware that Abramovich recently enhanced Chelsea’s balance sheet by converting some of his debt to equity, a sign that clubs are acutely aware of the intent of Uefa to enforce their rules for once. If they were aware of it and still felt the need to make crass observations, shame on them for their irresponsibility and thank God they have no say in running Arsenal.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.
FA Cup 4th Round
Stoke City 3 – 1 Arsenal
1 – 0 Fuller (2)
1 – 1 Denilson (42)
2 – 1 Fuller (77)
3 – 1 Whitehead (85)
The opportunity to win one of the three trophies in which Arsenal had an interest disappeared yesterday at The Britannia Stadium as Stoke City ended their FA Cup hoodoo, not undeservedly nor as emphatically as the scoreline suggested. Arsene prioritised the upcoming Premier League fixtures, the expected wholesale changes to the side a clear indication of his intent to go to Villa Park in midweek with as strong a line-up as he can possibly field.
Arsene said afterwards:
I do not regret the side I put out, I did not have much choice. We had 10 injuries and a very difficult programme coming up. Our selection was simple, take a look at our schedule and you must see we cannot play the same 11 every time. That is for sure. But, if you do not win in such situations, it is my fault. I can only stand by the team I selected in the circumstances. We lost but there was not much room for manoeuvre in terms of players available.
When you are the away side in a cup-tie, the key thing is to contain the home side for the opening quarter of the match, trying to frustrate their players and quieten the crowd whilst you gradually assert your own gameplan. Arsenal singularly failed in that objective, barely making it into the second minute before Ricardo Fuller got the first of his brace.
A Delap long throw speared into the box, Fabianski hesitated, waiting for the ball to arrive instead of meeting its trajectory, allowed Fuller to connect first with a header into the net. To concede that early was a blow which took its toll. Stoke pressed, had half chances but never capitalised.
Whilst Arsenal recovered, their passing game never materialised, in part due to the pitch but mainly because Stoke did not allow them to settle. Even so, a large portion of the first half was dictated by Arsenal. Fabregas started, surprising on the one hand given he is one of the valuable players to the team but you cannot wrap him in cotton wool.
With the injuries and the Spaniard’s form, playing him was a calculated risk; one that did not work but had appeared to when he slid a freekick to Denilson, the Brazilian getting luck with deflections as the ball arrowed into the bottom corner.
Half-time approached and Arsenal’s ascendency was reflected in a succession of corners. Like the rest of the match, little materialised in the danger area to threaten the parity which had been restored. The second half reflected the first. Stoke hassled and harried, Arsenal passed into every furrow that churned the turf. Wenger wanted to win the tie and introduced Eduardo, Arshavin and the returning Ramsey.
Little changed until the match entered the final quarter of an hour. Sidibe is a deceptively slow man and to outpace the left side of the Arsenal defence was of concern, his cross met by Fuller. 2 – 1. Arsenal sought to fight back but with five minutes to go, Whitehead found himself free on the edge of the six yard area for the simplest of tap-ins. The inevitable exit confirmed when the home team ran out of aspirin for the ball, the referee took pity on its predicament and called proceedings to a halt.
Will Wenger have learned anything from yesterday? Other than you cannot put out a team with ten changes and win, I am not sure. Emmanuel-Thomas did well up front, dropping deep to link attack and midfield but starved of good possession, it was hard for him to make headway.
Eastmond and Coquellin were a mixed bag. It was a tough match for them to come into and nerves impacted on the young Frenchman with his passing. Defensively, he performed decently once he had settled. His passing though was off-key, wayward and too forceful at times. Eastmond meanwhile struggled like the rest of the midfield, to impose the usual passing game on the hosts.
Crucially, none of the trio of JET, Eastmond and Coquellin did anything to suggest that they do not possess the talent to make the grade at Arsenal although they did not make sufficient impression to indicate that their breakthrough would be imminent. It is tough to come into a much-changed side and dominate their opponents; the true measure of the youngsters comes in the Premier League when the fill in for injured or rested players, settling in alongside a strong first XI. To write them off now, on the basis of one cup tie, is premature and short-sighted.
The return of Aaron Ramsey was a boost, as was Theo Walcott’s presence in the starting line-up. The lack of match sharpness in both was evident but expectations that Walcott, in particular, would suddenly turn around and perform at his best with so few matches this season were unrealistic. That was a contributing factor to the flatness of his performance but more telling was the lack of decent service.
Exiting the FA Cup at this early stage is always disappointing. Wenger’s team selection focussed on the next four matches rather than yesterday. Was he right to do so? The end of the season will tell.