Thursday, 20 March 2008

F-Off Inter - let's get tough...oh and Eboue

This tapping up business has got to stop. Granted, we do not know the ins and outs of the apparent tapping up of Alex Hleb by Inter Milan. That said however, if it is true, I am starting to get fed up. Arsene Wenger must start to get tough on this matter and take Inter to court. We did it over the Ashley Cole affair but have generally let things lie when it has happened since.

It may not be considered "tapping up" but some of the comments that have emerged from the Nou Camp and Santiago Bernabeu over the last few years are surely the exact same thing? The obvious thing that comes to mind when I think about these clubs and their antics is the comments regarding their desire to sign Cesc Fabregas. I encourage you though to cast your minds back further.

You may well remember the days when Patrick Vieira was at the height of his Arsenal career. As the turn of the century arrived he firmly established himself as one of the best midfield players in the World. What did that mean for the fans of Arsenal Football Club? It meant that we had to read constant statements from the Madrid side about their desire to sign Vieira.

For countless summers, the question was "will he stay or will he go?" It even got to a point during one summer break that Arsenal fans had already accepted he had gone. It seemed that everything was signed and Wenger would need to find a replacement. In the end Paddy stayed for one more year and claimed that he had that special bond with the club. Many believed the money was a huge factor as his wages went sky high. It is not for me to speculate here but it does raise another issue on this tentative subject.

It is extremely hard to work out exactly when the rumours of potential interest in a player come from the agents or a true source. We are currently in a world where agents will do anything to raise the amount they receive via their percentage. Agents are only looking out for one thing in this game, number one. They do not care what problems are caused when they talk up interest from other clubs.

There is a clear difference when the club itself comes out with statements like the ones we have heard from Real Madrid. It is ridiculous how these clubs think they can say whatever the hell they like and get away with it. This season alone I have heard Roman Calderon mention Kaka being destined for Madrid, this after two years of constant declarations that he will sign Cesc Fabregas.

We have heard Barcelona declare their interest to bring Cesc back there at some point. I do not blame them for wanting such a player at their club, the only problem is that he is not their player, he is Arsenal’s and they cannot talk up such a move. That is tapping up in my opinion. The problem does however lie with Mr Wenger. He must take a hard line here but he never does.

Look at Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular. This is one area where I admire Alex Ferguson. He takes no shit from anyone, especially not Real Madrid or Barcelona. Throughout this season and last they have declared their desire to sign Ronaldo but these outbursts have died away, but why? Alex Ferguson has put them to bed.

When it seemed like Cristiano might leave this summer, Alex Ferguson told him he was going nowhere, told Madrid to go away in no uncertain terms and look how well he’s playing now. I just wish Wenger would release a statement declaring his refusal to sell these players. As soon as a report comes out over a potential move for Fabregas, he should quash immediately to avoid any unnecessary confusion. The silence does nothing but suggest Wenger is not sure over how his player feels.

Even if he believes his player might go, he must get tough and show how ambitious he is to keep his best players. If any club decides they want a player from Arsenal and make it public, it should be considered illegal and a valuable reason for Arsene Wenger to take this club to the Football courts. Whether he would have any chance of winning such a case I do not know; what he would show from it could be what makes it so important. This strong stance would warn any clubs that they should think twice before doing anything similar.

Hopefully Wenger will do this should the Hleb claims be found true. According to one paper Wenger will take Inter Milan to the courts over their tapping up of Hleb. If true, it seems Wenger has finally had enough and has begun to get tough with these clubs. It is about time he protected his squad and prevented these unsettling comments from clubs. It is out of order and I hope it starts to stop now.

If the worst comes to the worst, let’s release statements claiming Iker Casillas and Samuel Eto’o are destined to be at Arsenal for next season!

In other news, Tomas Rosicky seems to be far more unlikely to kick a ball for the first team in the near future. Reports claim he has not even started to join in training with a football. Tomas was expected back before Van Persie but injuries are never straight forward where Ro-"sicky" is concerned. The club thought he was over his injury troubles after he had a special insole inserted into his boot but then this happens. Week by week the fear he will end up as the new Freddie Ljungberg (in his latter years at Arsenal) increases.

Rosicky is definitely important to the side as he offers a directness from midfield. Hleb and Fabregas look for the killer ball and this often causes the game to slow down. That enables teams to close us down more easily than when someone like Rosicky is in the side. He gives us that balance in midfield as he draws players out with his desire to make things happen quickly, invariably they do.

Rumours are circulating that Emmanuel Eboue is up for sale in the summer. When Bakary Sagna came in this summer he was clearly brought in as the new first choice right back. He has not let Wenger down in his first season but Eboue has not settled to his new role on the right side of midfield as he might have wanted.

There have been times when Eboue has shown potential in this position. There have been others when he has looked like a lost soul out there. There are three things to consider this summer:
1. Is Eboue good enough?
As I said, he has shown promise at times but is it worth giving him another season to adapt to the role further?
2. Squad players
Every squad needs players who are prepared to be used more sparingly. A squad cannot survive if everyone wants to play every game. A manager needs players who are prepared to work hard in training and put up with a place on the bench for most of the season. Eboue is not part of our best 11 in my opinion but can be a decent player if called upon.
3. The price
If Wenger can get a decent price for Eboue he might cash in now and lose any risk of him flopping here. While interest is high and clubs are probably more likely to pay more than they might be one season on after no improvement.

I say that if the price is above £10million then I would probably sell. If it was anything less than that I would keep Eboue as a squad player and hope he cuts out the antics and continues to learn his trade as a right winger. It is hard to tell, he might become a very good midfielder given time.

First Half Laziness slowly creeping back in?

During our first season at the Emirates season, there was theme embedded within most of our home matches; first half laziness. On many occasions, the fans had to endure a lacklustre first 45 minutes, followed by a vastly improved second in which the team was generally chasing the game. As the current season got going it seemed as though things had changed. The problem recently is that the problem is creeping back in.

Look at these games from last season.

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 1
Olof Mellberg put Villa ahead in the second half but having battered at the door Gilberto scored late on to level the scores.
Arsenal 1 Middlesborough 1
James Morrison scored on the counter attack in the first half before Henry equalised from the spot.
Arsenal 1 Everton 1
Tim Cahill scored early on from a corner but Van Persie rescued a point with a late free kick.
Arsenal 1 Newcastle 1
Kieron Dyer nicked a quickfire goal in the first half but Henry made it 1-1 with a great free kick.
Arsenal 2 Portsmouth 2
Portsmouth went two ahead with goals from Pamarot and Taylor. Adebayor and Gilberto made the scores level in the second half.
Arsenal 6 Blackburn 2
An early Nonda penalty was cancelled out by goals from Gilberto, Adebayor and Hleb. When it became 3-2 Van Persie scored twice and Flamini added the 6th
Arsenal 2 Wigan 1
Landzaat scored a stunner after half an hour but an own goal followed by a Rosicky header finally broke Wigan’s resistance.
Arsenal 1 Bolton 1 (Fa Cup)
Kevin Nolan stole the lead early in the second half but Kolo Toure bundled the ball in for 1-1.
The common factor in all of these games is that Arsenal went behind to a goal against the run of play, only to fight back to get a point. These goals normally came late on as Arsenal battered away against deep lying defences. Teams normally came to the Emirates with a defensive set up and once they had stolen the lead in the first half, or early in the second, this game plan was only strengthened.

I say above the goal was "against the run of play". What I should say is that the goal came against the run of possession. We came out in the first half, passed the ball from side to side, backwards a bit but rarely with much pace going forward. The team obviously took time to settle into games and were happy to wait for a chance to come rather than go all out to make things happen.

With away teams set up in the custom 4-5-1 formation, they were happy for Arsenal to play in front of them. They were able to deal with any balls pumped long and with Arsenal’s lack of width, the middle area was congested and we were forced to play wide. As the half gradually drew on, Arsenal pushed more men forward, leaving us a bit more open at the back. This was not a problem as the opposition seemed unlikely to pose a threat. Suddenly however, the away team sensed an opportunity to break and unlike the home side, created that perfect opportunity and clinically took the lead.

From then on, we were forced the chase the game. As the away side held the lead, they knew they did not have to do anything more than try and soak up all our attacking pressure. It was only once the first goal had gone in that the lads began to try and force the issue as they realised a goal was needed fast. Wenger obviously rallied the troops at half time but by then it was too late. The problem was that we did not have an answer till very late on in those games and were able to take victory against Wigan and Blackburn.

At the start of this season it looked like same old story as Fulham scored the first goal at the Emirates. Inspired goalkeeping (a common occurrence against Arsenal it seems), desperate defending and wasteful finishing meant it took 82 minutes for us to break Fulham down as Toure won the penalty which Van Persie smashed home.

Up until this moment it seemed like we were never going to score and the most we could hope for was 1 point. We had battled away and I for one thought that we had used up all our luck to get that one goal; a second would never come. I willed that second goal to go in but it seemed like the second was beyond us.

Then…in the last minute, what had been our downfall last season was seemingly put behind us. During the 2006/07 season, our downfall at home was our inability to turn up to, and kill games early on. These games took their toll on the players but this season there seemed to be a turning point. As Cesc Fabregas played the ball over the top to Alex Hleb, I knew that elusive goal was going to come.

That goal took on huge importance as it showed this team was different to the one from the previous season. On the face of it, the goal got us off to a winning start in the Premiership, but it took on added importance. With all the media doubt surrounding the new season, it was important that this team went out to show that we had moved on from Thierry Henry and we were going to fight all the way for the title.

From this game on Arsenal had a bit of a swagger about them and teams were blown away as our run of form gathered pace. Unlike the season before we started went at teams early on with the throttle pushed down hard. Teams were blitzed by the speed and ruthlessness of our Football. With the partnership of Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin Van Persie up front, the days of early mistakes and desperate late equalisers seemed to be a thing of the past.

Then we hit December. Having played such brilliant football up until the Villa game on December 1st it was not unusual to see us go in at the break 2-1 up after a master class in attacking football. As soon as Alex Hleb went off however, the life was drained out of us and as if a switch had been flicked, we lost all impetus. From that moment on the goals were not free flowing like before and our play was void of speed and movement as we had become so used to.

The middle stint of the season saw us grind out results. From December 16th to January 1st we took 13 points from a possible 15 in the league. During this period we beat Chelsea, Tottenham, Everton and West Ham; in my opinion without playing to our best. Although we beat Everton by 4 goals to 1, we did not reach our usual standard of play and resorted to the long ball game.

Over this short period of time, the media was beginning to believe Arsenal had the stomach for the fight and were getting victories without playing well; a true sign of Champions. The problem was that this could not last forever. Sooner or later we had to find our early season form. This came towards the end of January as we went to Fulham and Manchester City and welcomed Newcastle and Blackburn to the Emirates. During these games we scored 11 goals and conceded only 1. It looked as though we were finding our feet again as the goals were flowing and we looked solid at the back.

At this point we were 5 points clear of Manchester United. Now we find ourselves level on points with United but they have a game in hand. I expect them to have beaten Bolton by the time this goes out and then we will be 3 points behind. If Chelsea win at Tottenham on the same evening we will have allowed them to close down our advantage as we will be level on points with them. We visit Stamford Bridge on Sunday also.

So what went wrong? Many will point to the defeat at the hands of Manchester United in the FA Cup. I do not buy that. To me, when a game goes that badly, all that the players want to do is move on as soon as possible. It is dwelled upon for a few hours the next Monday morning but from then the next game is the important thing. One must also take into account that only Gallas, Fabregas, Eboue, Hleb and Eduardo had played in the previous match and were likely to start the next one.

That next game was AC Milan and Arsene Wenger got a fantastic performance out of his players that night; the only thing missing was a goal. The flickering flame of the Manchester United game was extinguished there and then and we were ready to push on in the League once again. Next came a trip to St Andrews.

It was here that I believe the season changed. It is likely the players were on a high going into the game and wanted to get the chase for the Premier League title back on track. Before the game even got started, it was soured by Martin Taylor. I am being careful not to accuse him of anything deliberate but the fact of the matter is that the game was overshadowed by his horrific tackle on Eduardo.

The Arsenal players were clearly in a state of shock for the whole first half after what happened. When you see one of your best mates lying there in so much pain, there is no way you can concentrate on a football match right there and then. To add insult to injury (excuse the pun) we went into the break 1-0 down after a dodgy refereeing decision.

That 15 minute break has never been more needed by Arsene Wenger. He got the troops in and once they had re-grouped and focused on winning that game for Eduardo, they turned the game on its head. They showed great character to come from one goal behind and take the lead. Winning that game 2-1 could have been a major boost after what happened but it was cruelly taken away by the ref. There is no way Gael Clichy fouled Parnaby yet the ref pointed to the spot. The manner in which we drew that game made the day even more awful than it already was.

From here it was always going to be tough to focus the minds back to the title race. Although players came out and declared a desire to win the trophy for Eduardo, I knew it would take a bit of Football to get firmly back on track. There was one slight hitch. Aston Villa were never going to lie down in during their pursuit for Europe. Like they had done the previous season, they stole a lucky goal and were content to keep us at arms length.

The fans endured a lacklustre first half performance reminiscent of the season before. This was understandable after the events of the previous game but what was not good was our similar showing in the second. We were unable to create anything through the middle, failed to get round the Villa defence and only succeeded when we went long occasionally. There was a stubborn refusal to use this tactic more often and this was a mistake. The only time we caused problems was when we aimed long towards Bendtner and Adebayor, 6/5" and 6/4" respectively. Who wouldn’t cause problems with these two up front. Our goal came from one lung punt into the box and we had rescued a point.

There was me, walking out of the stadium, happy to have gained a point. Taking stock, it was not a bad point and I was confident we would push on. I knew we had Milan next and any sort of good performance would put us in good stead for the months ahead. What we got was in fact one of the best Arsenal performances in my lifetime. The way we kept the ball and moved Milan around at will was something I had not seen in recent months. After this I expected our troubles were behind us.

The simple truth was that Europe suits us more. In the League teams look to frustrate us and whereas at the start of the season we blew teams away without a care in the world, we were suddenly letting it affect us. With our most natural goalscorer Eduardo out we started to waste chance after chance. Wigan were up next and despite the appalling quality of the pitch, we should have taken three points but were wasteful in front of goal. A poor away performance yes, but still a point and ‘Boro at home’ the team that lost 2-0 to Cardiff the next day, surely 3 points here?

Well no actually, once again, only 1. Like Villa, they nicked a goal on the counter after Arsenal started at a canter. Suddenly we seemed a bit more alert but never had the speed and cunning to open ‘Boro up. We deserved a point at least and it should have been very different had this ref not dropped a clanger in the 4th minute. Once again we were hard done by an official.

What has got to change then?

The first thing is out mentality in the first half. Wenger rambles on and on about mental strength and character. Show this in the bloody first half then please! They did it at the start of the season but now have reverted back to their old ways. We have scored more goals than any side in the last 15 minutes; this can be recreated early on in games.

Maybe pre match preparation is not getting the players ready as it should. I see away teams doing passing drills against each other before games and taking shots at their keeper. All i see Arsenal doing is doing a few running exercises and passing the ball leisurely between themselves. These slightly competitive warm ups get the juices flowing and this may give teams an edge early on. Rarely do I see us practicing shots beforehand either. It is no wonder the players seem reluctant to have a go and often take time to find their range. Maybe we need to get all this done before the game starts so we can go out and kill teams early on?

Is complacency a factor? The times we have dropped points unnecessarily have been against so called lesser sides. When the season begun, everyone wrote Arsenal off and a no pressure situation was created. The players went into every game ready to prove people wrong, whoever the opposition was. Now that people have taken note of our position, weaknesses are showing. Gallas said the players were up for the Milan game, it is the type of game players thrive on. It must be this whether we visit the San Siro or the JJB.

The last factor I want to consider is the lack of options. I have often highlighted the need for a winger; someone to stretch teams and create gaps in the centre. With Hleb cutting inside and Eboue looking lost on the right we rarely get around the sides of teams. We lack someone who will get the ball and go at teams. We do not have a C.Ronaldo type player. Rosicky does add drive to our attack and we have missed him. We need to be able to shake it up once in a while and bringing Diaby on at left midfield is not it.

We play Chelsea, Bolton, Liverpool and Manchester United in the league now and these pathetic first half showings have got to stop. We may have only been 1 behind against Villa and ‘Boro but the other big three will punish this further. Hopefully the occasion spurs the players on but when we get back to the nitty gritty games, the players must show respect to the opposition, whoever it is, and play as if their lives depended on it.

The Wigan game, squad depth, Champions League tactics and so on

It does seem like the logical place to start this entry is Sunday’s game. For me it could have swung the title race firmly into the path of Man Utd. Many Arsenal fans would have been delighted to see Portsmouth win at Old Trafford but for me it is not so great. Obviously it shows people that teams can win there and it gives referees the confidence now that the correct decisions can be made. However, in terms of our personal benefit, here is why I am not so happy.

Man Utd are arguably the best team at coming back from set backs like this. Arsenal fans only need to cast their minds back a few weeks and they will remember the drubbing we received at the hands of our rivals. Having dropped two points at White Hart Lane, they followed this up with a 2-1 home defeat to neighbours Man City. What happens next? They thrash one of their two title rivals. I fear this defeat might spur them on to a good run of form.

Couple this factor with the fact they are only 2 points behind and have a game in hand and it all looks a it bleak. The only thing to cling onto is the fact this title race has taken so many twists and turns already that it is very hard to judge what might happen.

One thing to watch out for is that we must not assume it is a two horse race and there is a strong likelihood we could go onto finish 3rd. Should we lose at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge we may well find ourselves pushed down the table by the Chavs. Hopefully Chelsea will come up short in some of their tricky games that remain this season and it becomes solely between two teams.

What does worry me is that we do not seem up for the fight of late. Against Birmingham I have no complaints on this front considering how well the lads did to come back after Eduardo’s horrific injury, only to be robbed of 2 points. The games against Villa and now Wigan have scared me though. We looked lacklustre against O’Neill’s well drilled side and against Wigan we failed to be ruthless. The chances were there but the players seemed to have a refusal to put the bad pitch behind them. That worries me a little.

In that game we looked awfully short on ideas, but also depth in the squad. After the Milan game Hleb looked knackered and in need of a rest. The problem was that we did not have enough players to give him that recovery time. Rosicky has disappeared once again, Eboue is only just back from suspension but is that a real advantage to the side? Gilberto looks lost in this team but has to play as Walcott and Diaby are getting injured left, right and centre. If Wenger seriously wants to challenge for the title this season, these players must get sorted before its too late. We are going to need everyone.

The Portsmouth game disappointed me for another reason. That was the performance of Lassana Diarra. Ever since his move to the South Coast he has been playing brilliantly. He showed glimpses of this with us but Wenger decided to let him go over Gilberto. Had Wenger taken a gamble and got rid of the ageing Brazilian, he could have had room for a younger guy who is hard in the tackle, strong on the ball and dominant in the centre. These are all things Gilberto is not right now and I wonder if Wenger regrets this move. He may have been impatient at Arsenal but I am sure most people would be if Gilberto got preferential treatment despite such poor form.

Hopefully Alex Song is going to be the one to push Gilberto out and Wenger does not see Gil in his long term plans. Flamini will hopefully sign up (get it done now!) and then we will have Song and him fighting for the place alongside Cesc.

Another blow is the continued absence of Tomas Rosicky but, it is starting to become some sort of joke now. How much time does this guy need to recover? It is likely that he will play 5 games in a row before some part of his body malfunctions. It is becoming more serious by the injury and I hope he does not go the same way as Freddie Ljungberg did.

The effect he has on the team is substantial in my eyes and if you look at our performances since he has been out, they lack pace and decisiveness. These are two things Rosicky brought to the side from the left side of midfield. Hleb and Fabregas like to build play slowly and Tomas added that balance with his willingness to drive at players and make things happen. Diaby cannot do this from the left, Eboue certainly cannot from the right and although they are great players, Hleb and Fabregas do not play this way. We are certainly easier to play against without the drive of Rosicky.

Up front we are also lacking in firepower. Adebayor has done brilliantly this season but we cannot rely on one man. Nicklas Bendtner looked good against Wigan but I do not sense he will score many goals at this stage of his career. Bendtner and Ade are too similar to play together and somehow the partnership will never reach the results needed to win a trophy.

That is why I was so happy to see Robin Van Persie back on the pitch yesterday and I just pray that he has put his injury problems behind him and is back for the final push. In the League this season, we played our most fruitful football with the combination of Adebayor and Van Persie and the goals did dry up when RVP was laid out through injury. We were scraping victories by the odd goal as we relied on Adebayor for the majority of our goals. Hopefully now these two can form a partnership again and the goals will come back.

With Van Persie back now and Rosicky soon I hope we should be back at full strength for the League and I cannot wait for this. It has been a while but it could make all the difference. Think of Man Utd without Rooney and Tevez and you see how I see Arsenal without these two. I see them as being this important.

The interesting thing to see from Arsene Wenger now is how he sets out his troops in the Champions League. I mentioned above how Fabregas and Hleb like to play the slower game and wait for things to happen. In the league teams will stifle this more but as we saw in Milan, this can work to great effect in Europe. The 4-5-1 formation helps us keep the ball and means we have support for Adebayor in midfield runners. In the Premiership the play is far more rushed and the same formation means Ade becomes isolated. So what does Wenger do now Van Persie is back?

I think the draw will play a massive part in how he sets up. Should we meet an English team - something I do not want at all - then I feel he will go with 2 up front in Van Persie (if fit) dropping just behind Adebayor, at least in the home leg. This season we have gone with the one striker against Liverpool, Man Utd and Chelsea and in each game looked lacking in attack. Van Persie gives us that element of surprise and constant attacking threat. He can drop off into the midfield area if we need to but I would prefer us to go for it if we meet an English side.

Should we be pitted against a European side I think we will see a similar set up to that in Milan. The question remains as to who is picked. I am pre-empting that Rosicky and Van Persie will stay fit and Hleb, Fabregas and Flamini remain injury free (touch wood!). I am sure our 6 attacking players will be Flamini, Fabregas, Hleb, Rosicky, Van Persie and Adebayor. How does he arrange them? If you think back to last season, Wenger used Van Persie out on the left side with Rosicky inside him, Hleb on the right. We could see a similar thing with slight changes:



Hleb performed so well in the withdrawn strikers role and as he did with Eduardo, he may use a left footed striker out wide to add balance to the side. Against most European sides, possession is key and this set up allows for this. Although many do not see Van Persie as anything other than a striker, Wenger may well see it differently as he has done in the past.

He could try something similar to the way Holland play with Van Persie in the side. That means RVP starting on the right of an attacking trio with Robben on the left. Obviously we would have Rosicky out there but the idea is that we have Van Persie cutting in on his left side where is so strong. He does this very well for Holland and could re-create this for us. That is just another option.

Wigan vs Arsenal - San Siro To The JJB - A Similar Result Is Necessary

After our performance in the San Siro we must push on, both on a European and a domestic front. That starts this Sunday with the Premier League match at Wigan Athletic. The pitch up there will be awful and I doubt they will want to sort it out before we visit the JJB! On a brand new pitch we dominated Milan with our slick passing game. It will be difficult to carry out the same possession Football on such a ripped apart pitch.

If we want to win the Premier League we need to win these types of game. This game and the one at Bolton are the types of game that has caused us problems in recent seasons. To win the title we must prove that is behind us. We can go 4 points clear again and put the pressure firmly back on United to win their game in hand. It is tough always playing catch up and we cannot afford to give them any advantage.

Although we played 4-5-1 in the San Siro, I would like us to revert back to 4-4-2 against Wigan. Wigan should pose a far smaller threat in midfield and their defence is susceptible. We need to start scoring more frequently and having two up front makes a difference. One other reason for this is that the midfield area will become very congested on such a terrible pitch. Packing that area could have an adverse affect here.

Injuries will also dictate how and who we play. Walcott is out injured after a meaningless behind doors friendly against Colorado Rapids. The match may have been to help Van Persie in his return but what baffles me is why Theo was even playing? He is close to the first-team and his performances have looked promising of late but now he is out after such a stupid match. With the players available to Wenger it means Bendtner will get a chance up front. That will enable us to bypass the congested and bogged down midfield as we will inevitably try and hit long balls towards the two big front men.

Adebayor and Bendtner clearly do not get on well but neither did Sheringham and Cole during Man Utd’s treble winning season. They are both similar in their styles and as they are both outspoken it was always a risk something like this would break out. On Sunday they must show that they are professional and put it behind them for the good of the team. I would hope Ade did not pass to Bendtner at Birmingham because he felt he could score rather than disliking him. They linked well for the equaliser against Villa and more of the same will do nicely.

Diaby is also injured for this game after injuring his calf against Milan. What is it with Arsenal players and picking up so many injuries? Diaby did not seem to be struggling during the game and even played the full 90 minutes. The question of whether Wenger sends them to the treatment table after the smallest of niggles arises in my mind. I rarely see an Arsenal player playing in the side with a slight injury. I envy it when I see clubs like Liverpool who have the likes of Gerrard prepared to play through small problems without side effects. I doubt Wenger would ever let his players do the same.

With Eboue still suspended it is likely Hleb will play on the left with the right side filled by Fabregas or Denilson. I would prefer Wenger to stick with the same central midfield duo as in the San Siro as they will want to carry on what they did that night. These two are the mainstay of our midfield and right now part of the spine that will hopefully take us to the end of the season. Gilberto seems to have lost the ability to keep the ball and that will be crucial in this game, we must not allow Wigan to dominate us. That means we have Denilson to fill in on the right side.

Again the problem of squad depth arises and people will question Wenger’s judgement in not entering the transfer market. Again I will say there was no need for serious changes as we do have so many players to return very soon (I hope!). Maybe a winger would have been a good addition but with Walcott blossoming and Van Persie ready to free Hleb from his forward role our squad could have become too full.

One option Wenger has is to play either Clichy or Traore out wide on the left. Both can cross the ball and we would be secure down the sides. That is the area from which Wigan will want to attack and this gives us added protection down the wings. Saying that though i think Wenger will prefer to have natural midfield players in the side and it is a good game for Denilson to learn from.

The width will again have to come from the full backs with our midfield likely to be so narrow. Against Milan they were always prepared to get forward and their job will be to do the same and deliver crosses to the two big men up top. We have a huge threat with Bendtner and Adebayor and we must use this to its full extent. If it needs to be whipped in or kicked long lets just do it!

It is too early for Van Persie to start but he should be on the bench alongside Toure. Once again, these two will only be used if they are needed. We may well be short of numbers on the bench this Sunday and it will be down to those on the pitch to ensure the bench is not called upon. Toure was thought to be ready to come back in for Senderos.

In my eyes that would be extremely harsh on Big Phil who has improved massively over the last few weeks. The Villa game aside he has looked far more assured at the back alongside Gallas. With these two in central defence we look far more solid in the air and with Heskey Wigan’s main threat, this solidity could be very useful. Toure needs to work for his place.

On the face of it this game is not such a big one but in my view it is massive. After two draws we need to get back winning on a domestic basis. The must use the Milan game to provide confidence and make sure complacency does not creep in to their minds at all. Winning this game will send out a message that Arsenal are well and truly back on track.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

AC Milan 0 Arsenal 2 - Cesc Fabregas you genius, Arsenal XI I salute you!

I decided to write this match report as the game goes on. From the comfort of my bedroom I can watch the game and type this out at the same time. I have never done it before and it may contain the odd rant, highs and lows as the game goes on. Here goes:

Before the game I notice the team sheet and I think Wenger has bottled it. Theo Walcott has been dropped to the bench and replaced by Emmanuel Eboue. After two very encouraging performances the decision to bench Theo is irrational in my eyes. Emmanuel Eboue seems to have a divine right to waltz right back into the side and for me that is ridiculous. Eboue has been poor in this side and giving him this luxury will never make him learn.

As for Abou Diaby, well the guy is not a winger and maybe Theo should even be on the left. I guess Milan like to play a narrow game and Wenger will want to boss the centre. There will be hopes for Diaby to add muscle to the middle and link up well, he must wake up though as possession is key. The width must come from our full backs as Diaby will look to come inside.

Milan hae set up with an attacking trio of Inzaghi, Pato and Kaka. This scares me, it should scare everyone. Inzaghi is lethal and our defence must stick tight at all times. Senderos needs a better performance and Gallas must show why he is a leader. This is going to be tough but I am both excited and nervous. Is tonight the night? We play on a new pitch which will suit both teams really. To the game…

The game is on. Good start there, Hleb gets among the players and we counter well. More of that please lads. From here I will only comment on key things.

7 mins - That is ridiculous from the defence there. Awful defending to allow a free ball to come all the way in to the goal line before Cesc dealt with it. Milan will take heart from that and I hope we learn that we must attack the ball at the first opportunity.

12 mins - Brilliant tackle Cesc, great play by Adebayor, he can cause them problems here with his pace. So close from Diaby, very encouraging. Diaby must get forward to support him as Ade seemed isolated in that but if he can do the same thing we could be in business. We just must keep alert as very soon after Clichy misjudges for Inzaghi to hit the target - saved my Almunia.

18 mins - So so so so lucky there. Commentators say we have seen nothing from Kaka and Pato and lo and behold Kaka runs past 3 players and sets up Pato who strangely hits the ball with little power in probably and attempted lob. The defenders must not dive in as on this pitch he will find it so easy to cover the ground. Worrying.

32 mins - sorry guys, too nervous and into it to report but that is a disgrace. Nesta takes out Hleb, edge of the box and a dive is given with a yellow for Hleb is ridiculous. That could cost us I feel but we are keeping it well and taking it to Milan - FABREGAS, HITS THE BAR. It is just not falling for us right now but hopefully we keep plugging away.


"Arsenal have done everything but score" Spot on ITV commentators but we really need to score. The half was summed up by three brilliant tackles, first by Flamini on Kaka - not for the first time - secondly on Ambrosini by Diaby and lastly by Hleb on Nesta I think it was. We have kept the ball brilliantly at times and have given Milan no time on the ball whatsoever. Wenger just needs to tell them to keep it up as Milan will come out better in the 2nd half. This tie is still intriguingly poised.

47 mins - Senderos fluffs our best chance. Corner in and he hits it at keeper, anywhere else he scores. There are the chances we must take. Milan already look more in this game and pose a threat at all times. Jesus my heart is racing and my fingers are shaking I am finding it hard to write.

50 - Forget Senderos - Eboue has just missed the best chance of the game. Pirlo plays in Ade who puts him in perfectly but Eboue misses the target as he has done many many times this season. He has come back in and been given a chance by Wenger, probably undeserved and he must do more to prove he deserves it.

Just wanted to say now - whatever the result here this performance must give us confidence for the rest of the season. Well saved Manu (53 mins).

I just feel it now, waste the chances and they will nick it last minute.

YEEEESSSSSSSS - GOAL GOAL Cesc Fabregas you genius! I thought that hit the back netting but no; what a goal!

Sorry for the delay - had problems with dominoes pizza but that is nothing now. The report during the game is interesting to note but I will sum up later as usual.

Full Time - Get in there Lads - We’ve got Cesc Fabregas, We’ve got Cesc Fabregas and Adebayor, Adebayor-oooorrr, give him the ball and he will score.

Now I leave that log from my mind on a brilliant night, I will add the post match later
Now i have calmed down and the house is not vibrating with noise lets reflect. There is not much to be said really. Almunia was solid, Sagna and Clichy brilliant and got forward as required. The defence was colossal, especially Gallas who showed why he is the captain. Senderos had his moments but won pretty much everything.

Fabregas and Flamini were outstanding and that adjective does not do them justice. Fabregas conducted this orchestra with ease and was clear man of the match, he just had fun out there. They gave Kaka and Pirlo no time and Pirlo looked so average. Diaby was very good also but Eboue did not cut it. Theo from the off now Wenger, the guy made a difference AGAIN.

Up front Hleb was awesome again with passing 84% complete. He linked well with Fabregas and together they ripped Milan apart. One ball from Hleb to Walcott was amazing, the technique and accuracy showed Hleb at his best. Lastly, but by no means the least, Emmanuel Adebayor I salute you! He led the line amazingly and was always there. His form was off lately but tonight he shone and got his first goal in the Champions League, lets now have more from Ade.

There is not much more to say right now. All I will do is praise our players through the roof but you do not need to hear that, all the papers will do it tomorrow. I am sure Fabregas the King will go into more detail later but I just wanted to show my thought during the game. They make interesting reading late on.

For me, this night resembled the one in the Bernabeu two seasons ago when Thierry Henry’s moment of brilliance took us through. That night we were the first English side to win in the Bernabeu, now we are the first team to win in the San Siro. Credit to all the lads, many teams have failed to keep Kaka quiet, look at Man Utd last year. Well done lads and spot on Wenger.

Arsenal vs AC Milan - All to play for...bring it on!

Arsenal vs AC Milan in the San Siro, scores level at 0-0 after the first leg and one of the hardest and most important games so far this season. No British team has won in the San Siro and right now our form is shaky. Lets be realistic, Milan are favourites to go through to the quarter finals but it will not be a full gone conclusion.

Cast your minds back to two seasons ago when Arsene Wenger’s side visited the Bernabeu. Until 2006, no English team had beaten Real Madrid on their own turf. Our league form was shaky then too and no one gave us a chance that night. In the end, it took one moment of brilliance but we came away with a 1-0 victory that, combined with a 0-0 scoreline at home, took us through. A repeat would do nicely.

In my opinion it may take something similar to the goal Thierry Henry scored back then to take Arsenal through. That night we created chances and wasted them in the same fashion as at the Emirates two weeks ago. Milan are disciplined at the back and we may need someone to stand up and make that difference.

Although the odds are against us, there is no reason why we cannot win this game. The tie is intrigingly poised and while that is the case, both sides still have a choice. This game could have a huge bearing on our season. Winning this game will give us a massive boost for the rest of the season. If we lose it will either provide the basis for a collapse. Hopefully though, if we have to go out, a loss will show us where our priorities lie and make sure the League is firmly on the mind.

Both sides come into it with key players out injured. It was believed Kaka would miss this tie through injury but, as in the first leg, he is fit and ready to take to the field. He may not be at his best and Flamini and Fabregas showed us that they can stifle his threat. Clarence Seedorf is out and this is a blow to Milan. The Dutchman might be into his 30s but he is intelligent and still has that quality.

We saw in the first leg that if we go at Milan with pace they will find it hard to cope. Playing against an ageing side suits Arsenal when they move the ball quickly, use their clever moment and give the opposition no time to settle. We closed them down early in the home leg and Milan failed to get their passing game going. We need the exact same tomorrow evening.

Being at home will push Milan to open up a bit more than at the Emirates. They were hapy to soak up the pressure and try and hit us on the counter attack. They showed all those watching why Italian teams can be so hard to break down, even when the attack is not firing. In the San Siro, Milan will pose a far superior attacking threat but may leave themselves open. I think Wenger will look to hit Milan on the counter and try and get at the ageing defence when they have fewer numbers providing the protection.

It is imperative that the Arsenal players close down the Milan players when they look to get the ball down. If we give them any time on the ball they have the ability to punish us at any moment. The players will take heart from the first leg in that Milan rarely troubled on the same level to which Arsenal did. We also must take the chances when they arrive and I believe they WILL arrive.

Arsene Wenger has some decisions to make regarding team selection but I do feel we will set up in a 4-4-1-1 in the same way we did in the home tie. Adebayor will lead the line with Hleb in behind. It will resemble the start of the second half on Saturday. The worry on Saturday was that we did not create any chances with Hleb in behind Adebayor. With Walcott up front we stretched Villa’s defence more often and when Bendtner came on we gave them extra problems. This will come into Wenger’s mind but with a counter attacking set up likely the extra man in midfield is likely.

At the back Almunia will probably keep his place after a very good performance on Saturday. He keot us in the game at 1-0 and inevitably gave us the chance to draw level. It is harsh on Lehmann who played well in his run in the side. One advantage Manu has over Jens is his quick thinking when we try and spring counter attacks.

At the back Toure has not made the squad which is a blow. Pace could be key in this game and Senderos looked dodgy against Villa. Hopefully his confidence has not been knocked and he looks back to his excellent outings against Milan and Blackburn to how he can play. We will be pushed back into our box and his positioning and aerial strength could be of great value. William Gallas knows how big this game is and he has a lot to prove after his antics at Birmingham.

The full backs will need to be disciplined but Wenger will urge them to attack if possible. Milan do not attack down the wings as much as other teams but Sagna and Clichy can provide extra cover in the centre. They will be crucial on the counter also as we look to spring from the back. Their pace will cause Milan’s fullbacks problems. We rarely took advantage of the 2 on 1 situations out wide with Milan not having wingers. We must do that tomorrow.

On the wings Wenger can go with Walcott and Diaby once again but I feel we may see Eboue back in the side. For me, allowing Eboue an easy route back into the team would be wrong. The guy has become complacent and that has allowed his performances to drop. He is a frustrating player but a man who can have a big impact off the bench.

Theo Walcott cannot be dropped after two impressive performances. That leaves Diaby, who I feel could do ok in this game. He likes to cut inside which can give us extra men in the centre. He can add strength but he must be more dynamic. If he selects Eboue it could see Theo on the left. If Wenger feels he can be adventurous we may see Hleb on the left with Eboue right. That would mean playing Theo alongside Ade. It would be a risk for Wenger but his pace could be lethal. I doubt that will happen though.

Flamini and Fabregas need to play exactly the same way as they did against Milan last time around. They must not produce the same crap from the match against Villa. Flamini did not close down and put pressure on the opponents, Fabregas slowed the game down and was not his usual self. He lost the ball far more often than normal and often withdrew impetus from our play. He will be urged to move the ball quickly and get the Milan team chasing the ball.

Is this the game Adebayor breaks his mini scoring drought? I bloody hope so! He has not scored in four games; his last goal coming against Blackburn. After his miss in the last leg he owes us a goal. I still do not know how he missed but now he knows he must get his first European goal for Arsenal. If he does it could be a huge step towards the next round. Ade will need to make sure the midfield links up with him otherwise he will become isolated. He can dominate in the air if we get our players wide and the full backs overlap.

Lastly we have the subject of Robin Van Persie. According to Wenger:

"He has not played for five months really but he can play a part in the game, he is not ready to start but medically it is not a risk. Maybe to start in the game and play above his normal pace, that would be a risk."

Therefore, as there seems to be no risk of a recurrence it should be ok to use him, if we need him. If the game is lost or won by the 70th minute I doubt we will see him come on. If we need a goal there is no doubt RVP will be on. Wenger knows he can produce a moment of brilliance at any moment, especially against a defence thay will tire late on. He also provides a quality corner and is our best free kick taker. These situations could be crucial. We have looked a bit short of goals lately and goals are something Van Persie delivers.






Subs: Lehmann, Hoyte, Eboue, Gilberto, Denilson, Bendtner, Van Persie

I am already excited about this game, wherever you are watching it, all Gooners will be together for this match. Let’s win this trophy for Eduardo and bring back the confidence to the whole of Arsenal.

Arsenal 1 Aston Villa 1 - Season changing result? Mistakes made in January?

As we moved into the New Year I looked at the fixtures that I believed might have the biggest influence on the title race. Arsenal vs Aston Villa was one of the ones I picked out. I was worried that their organisation, hard work and pace on the counter might cause us problems. That is exactly what happened yesterday afternoon. Wenger is right that scoring in the last minute could be a confidence boost but I do feel the advantage has swung Man Utd’s way.

The performance yesterday was on par with those we produced at ‘Boro, Newcastle and Pompey. We lacked creativity and potency. The problem seems to be that we are not playing at the same pace we showed at the start of the season. We are slowing the play down far too much and this enables the opposition to form a solid barrier. The reason we had so much success at the start of the season was that we went at teams with pace from the start, moved defenders around and were clinical in front of goal.

There is no doubt that we are missing three crucial players in the set up that provided this type of play. Kolo Toure often brought the ball out from the back and drew players too him, thus creating space for midfield runners. Tomas Rosicky gives the team that spark, that drive that we are missing. He looks to get the ball and make things happen. Robin Van Persie had that aura about him, that feel that he could score at any moment. I am positive that some of the chances we created against Milan, Birmingham and Villa would have been taken by Robin.

We are currently struglling due to this injury crisis. It begs the question as to whether Wenger should have bought in January. The money was available to him but he decided to keep his money in his pocket, with Luke Freeman the exception. Lets look at the two sides of the story:

Yes Wenger should have entered the transfer market:

Right now we lack creativity in midfield and more importantly we have no one who can score from these positions. We were relying on Eduardo and Adebayor for goals and this was not enough. With Rosicky, Diaby, Denilson, Song and RVP also out Wenger was relying on Eboue (0 goals), Hleb (4 goals), Theo (3 goals prior to Birmingham), Flamini (3 goals) and Fabregas (11 goals).

Fabregas has only scored once since November 3rd so therefore our midfield was lacking goals going into 2008. Rosicky only had 7 goals also; it was clear we could have done with a goalscoring midfielder. We also had two strikers scoring goals, but Bendtner has rarely scored when he has played. With Van Persie out we were one injury away from becoming blunt up front. Lo and behold, the horrific injury to Eduardo, and we are in the shit.

No, Wenger shouldn’t have entered the transfer market:

If Wenger had bought in the window, our squad would have been too big once players return. Buying another midfielder would leave us the same problem we had with Lassana Diarra. Had we brought in another striker, we would have 6 and surely one would have to go. This squad is developing how Wenger wants and he would have to make certain changes that he maybe would not want to make.

Wenger cannot foresee the future and who would have expected Eduardo to have his leg broken in a horrific challenge? A manager cannot simply buy players because we MIGHT get injuries. Granted, we had players out already but they are to come back and Wenger knows the problems having a huge squad can cause.

As Wenger said in his programme notes, "We have built a squad that has been thought through and Carlos Vela is part of that. We will assess the situation during the summer." The squad we have is part of a plan in Wenger’s mind and I do feel this squad is ahead of schedule, to be where we are now is fantastic and as Wenger said, the changes we need will be made in the summer, these players need a chance first.

Answer: I feel he could not buy unless he wanted to sell a few more players (that is a whole different debate)

Credit to Manuel Almunia for his performance yesterday. He was the main reason we were not dead and buried before Bendtner popped up. He made a string of quality saves to keep the score at 1-0. He has been put under pressure by Lehmann recently but once again has proved to be very solid.

Philippe Senderos has played well up to the Villa game but yesterday he had a bit of a shocker really. In the first half he had a major influence on the game; it was not a good influence for Arsenal. First of all he fluffed his lines with Carson on the floor at a corner and then scored a ridiculous own goal. It was clear Agbonlahor was going to cross the ball to Carew yet Senderos never got set, lost his footing and managed to divert it into the net. Senderos also tried to emulate Toure’s driving runs forward but got in a muddle most of the time. Senderos is all about aerial power but his lack of ability on the ground was shown up yesterday.

Alongside him I thought Gallas had good moments and bad moments, I guess that sums up the whole of the back four yesterday. Gallas was often caught sleeping as both Agbonlahor and later Harewood got through on goal. Clichy and Sagna were kept busy by Young and Maloney and our attacking threat from full back was stifled.

In midfield it was a shambles really. Flamini did not put in the tackles where he gets the ball and within seconds provides a springboard for attacks. Cesc Fabregas seemed to give the ball away so much when in good positions. He really does look jaded and in need of a rest but do we have the midfielders to cope with his absence, I doubt it.

Alex Hleb disappointed me the most in this game. He gave the ball away almost every time he had it and did not show the usual skill he does. Whenever he got past someone he always wanted to turn back and slow the game down. Hleb is at his best when he runs at people and causes them problems with his quick feet. Yesterday this was all missing. His shooting was also very poor but at least he had some attempts on goal.

Is it me or does Abou Diaby looks like he is on sedatives whenever he plays? The guy seems so lethargic and this is emphasised by the slowness with which he releases the ball to his team mates. He lacks the energy that encouraged Arsenal fans when he first arrived. I cannot help but think his drive would come back if he was moved into the centre. He is not the type of player suited to the left despite the agility he has shown on occasions. He is certainly one player whose future should be looked at in the summer in my eyes.

Up front Adebayor needs to find his Mojo once again. When he is not scoring Arsenal look lifeless up front and we will need him against Milan. The problem is that he is off form. He was kept out of the game against Villa and seems less willing to work an opening. Things are not falling for him but the players must hit him early. On many occasions he peeled away but the pass did not come as we continued to move it from side to side.

One bright light from the game was Theo Walcott. From the 1st minute he looked lively and often looked to come short. He always wanted to link up with Adebayor and was unlucky not to get a goal. He tested Carson a few times and created our only real chances. He finally used his pace to good effect rather than simply running around like a loose cannon. He looked more comfortable up front than on the wing but he could be a useful weapon on Tuesday. We must not get carried away though. His performance was not brilliant but the will for him to succeed often makes us overreact to good performances and over-criticise bad ones.

Arsenal vs Aston Villa - Win it for Eddy!

After the horrific events of last Saturday, having a full week until their next game was a blessing for the players. Arsene Wenger is said to have given the players an extra day off to get over what happened to their team mate and ultimately their good friend Eduardo. This much needed rest time could be crucial with the title race hotting up.

This week has seen various reports on the health of Eduardo, the feelings of Martin Taylor and the heroics of Gary Lewin. Most people are probably sick to death of such reports but there are two things I would like to focus on quickly. We all (21,500 emails!!!) obviously wish Eddy a speedy recovery and it is reported Taylor himself visited the striker in hospital and had his apologies accepted. Why then, was this said in an interview with our no.9?

Did Martin Taylor visit you or called you to apologize?

- As far as I remember, he didn’t stop by.

Would you accept his apology for such a brutal tackle?

- Of course I would, that’s life, I don’t blame him. These things happen in football.

Was it the idea of Birmingham City to put out such a claim? Maybe they hoped to lay to bed certain claims for Taylor to be punished; leaving him to move on from the incident. There is no reason to say Eddy would not have accepted an apology had it come. The fear he might blame Taylor should they meet face to face was non existent. Could it just have been Eduardo was so drugged up on morphine he doesn’t remember anything about this meeting and it did happen? I guess for now we will not know the real events.

Lastly I want to salute Gary Lewin. This guy has been with Arsenal for 20 years or so and is still as dedicated as ever. Reports have shown he may have saved Eduardo’s career and for that the fans owe him, the club owes him but most importantly Eduardo owes him. In a way, what Lewin did was out of his normal job description; his job is to analyse strains and knocks on the pitch, not deal with horrific injuries such as this.

This is not the first time he has done such a brilliant job for a professional footballer. Many will remember the events of the Carling Cup Final when John Terry was knocked out cold by Abou Diaby. Lo and behold it was Gary Lewin who was first on the scene. He sensed there was a real problem and putting club rivalry behind him he simply rushed to help a fellow human being. He may well have saved John Terry that day; not just his career but his life. Gary is arguably the best in the business and at times it is people like him behind the scenes that need recognition.

Hopefully the players have put the horrible images out of their minds and are now focused on the pursuit of the title. If they were not already determined to win the Premier League, the injury to Eduardo surely provides an added incentive. It reminds me of the season Robert Pires was cruelly laid out as he was lighting up the Premiership. Hopefully we see Eduardo lifting the trophy, reminiscent of the day Pires did the same.

Following the injury, it was thought that Wenger might have Van Persie on the bench this Saturday as the squad becomes extremely limited in numbers. It seems however that Wenger will wait a bit longer before bringing him back. It may be taking a while but if the timing is right and we get Van Persie back in prime condition, it could be a massive boost come the final months of the season. Tomas Rosicky is also still out and I feel Wenger realises the importance of having these two back, but back in top notch.

One player that is back is Abou Diaby but I think he will only make the bench. Otherwise I feel it will be the team that ended the match against Birmingham that starts this match. The back four picks itself and Almunia will get another chance in goal to stake his claim for the return leg against Milan.
Theo Walcott impressed me massively and his performance was understandably overshadowed.

The two goals will give him confidence and it is a weight off his shoulders to get his first league goals. With the injuries we currently have he also knows he has a chance to get a run in the side, he needs to take it. We need to start winning games now and hopefully Wenger will not mess with the midfield trio of Hleb, Cesc and Flamini. They have been the mainstay of this side and we need our best players to get through a tricky period like this.

On the subject of Flamini, I am starting to get worried with his lack of commitment to this club and a new contract. He has been one of the reasons our performances have turned around this season and hopefully he signs up. He was not wanted by Wenger at the start of the summer but having forced his way into the side it would be a real shame to throw it all away. Arsenal is a side going places and Juventus are a side struggling to close the gap in Serie A, I do not understand why he would want to leave. It seems like his agent is trying to bump up his pay deal by a few grand.

Wenger has the option of playing Theo up front with Adebayor but for now I feel he will give Bendtner his chance to shine. He has improved this season and now is the time to show if he is ready to make the final step up. He has not made a huge impression in the League and with Van Persie back soon, the pressure is on him to perform. Ade just needs to start scoring again, simple as that. I guess one could say the relationship between the two strikers must improve, I hope it was just his striker’s instinct that made him go for goal rather than square it to Nick.





Subs: Lehmann, Gilberto, Denilson, Diaby, Hoyte

It is a pity we are playing Villa after this small dip in results combined with such a horrific turn of events last weekend. They play on the counter with pace and the full backs will have a tough job on their hands. Gallas will need to stay tight to Agbonlahor and we will rely on Phil to stifle the aerial threat of Carew. We have seen they are dangerous from set pieces, an area in which we are particularly weak. It is a big game but if we take our chances and are disciplined at the back we should get the points. Saying that, it will be far from easy.

Birmingham vs Arsenal - Back To The League

After a near perfect performance against Milan, the Manchester United game should be banished from the minds of the squad. Now we return to the business of the Premier League and it is time to get back into the swing of things. The only thing we failed to do against AC this week was put the ball in the back of the net, Saturday is a perfect chance to put that right.

Had we killed Birmingham off at home rather than let complacency creep in we would be 7 points clear. Things happen in football and to be honest you cannot look back and say "what of at this stage". That game was in the past and every club has had certain things go wrong unexpectedly. I am only reminding everyone of this because the same cannot happen. We need to keep the 5 point gap alive and extend it if possible before we travel to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.

Against Birmingham at the Emirates we really should have finished with 3 points, especially having taken the lead. In the past we had often gone behind only to gain a point late on but we got past that this season. This time however we allowed a team to steal a point with a cheap goal from their first set piece; tomorrow, if we take the lead, we must kill the game off as quickly as possible.

We are less likely to concede a similar goal with someone like Senderos in the side. His form has been excellent and if he can continue this then we should have a solid enough base to build on. One thing Phil adds to the side when he is in the team is height and power from set pieces, at both ends. All we lacked in the corresponding fixture was for someone to take charge and head the ball clear.

On the injury front we have Almunia back in the squad but after two good performances from Lehmann that is no great boost; it is nice to have him back but with one ‘keeper in good form it can never improve the squad hugely. It would be harsh on Lehmann should Almunia come straight back in, but I guess having established himself as the Premiership keeper this season, Wenger may opt for Manuel and keep Jens for the second leg against AC.

Van Persie, it seems, will return for the run-in but Wenger wants to have him fully fit and raring to go before he returns, he could be a massive player for us in the coming months. Tomas Rosicky is also close to a return but it is too soon for him also.

We only have one player back but we have two players out. Kolo’s injury is not as bad as first feared and in my eyes, it was wrong to start him ahead of Senderos on Wednesday night. Senderos was in the middle of a good run of form and Toure returned to the side after an injury-hit African Cup of Nations; only to be part of the 4-0 drubbing. Phil gets another chance to cement his place and his form eases the loss of Toure.

Emmanuel Eboue is also out with a fresh injury. His looks as serious as first feared with his lay-off likely to be around one month. For me, we have not lost anything special here as Eboue has been very poor all season. No goals from the right wing, from a player who has started a lot of games, is not good enough. He has not looked to beat his full back enough and now Theo Walcott gets a shot. Eboue played through the injury which may have caused further damage. To me that is bad for the team on his part, as soon as he felt any niggle he should have come off and allowed a raring to go Theo more time on the pitch.

It is hard to make this statement with Theo only having five minutes on the field of play, but, when he came on he seemed to have more urgency and positivity in him than Eboue had for most of his 89 minutes. Wenger made the substitution too late against Milan but Walcott now should get at least 70 minutes to show his worth to the side. He has looked a far better player as an impact sub, can he have an influence from the start?

Clichy and Sagna showed how important they are to the team with brilliant displays in midweek. I mentioned it after that game and want to mention again how much respect I have for Sagna right now. He has just lost a brother but has come back to put this team high in his priorities. Even though football is basically his life and for many players it is the best way to put things behind you, coming back so soon takes bottle and for this I salute him. Clichy has played in every league game this season which is a remarkable feat and along with Sagna has established himself as a key member of the side.

Despite playing behind the striker in the Champions League, Hleb will revert to the left as Eduardo partners Adebayor once again. In the League there is less emphasis on keeping the ball in the centre and if we can get it wide to Hleb he can cause problems out there. He will be key should we adopt a counter attacking strategy and his eye for a pass could split Birmingham apart.

All I need to say regarding both Flamini and Fabregas is "same again please". These two were awesome in the game against Milan and together meant we won the midfield battle. We gave their players no time to settle and with Birmingham likely to mix it up, they will have a hard task. Hopefully Cesc can get on the ball and maybe even get back on the scoresheet. One thing I wish to say to Flamini only, "sign up now, please!"

Eduardo plied his trade on the left of midfield and worked away admirably in a position he is not suited to. Wenger clearly is attempting to re-create a similar set up to the one that took us to the final two seasons ago, with a left footed player in Reyes out on the left. In the league however, I am sure Eddy will revert to his preferred role as a striker. That is where he is dangerous and a 4-4-2 is generally more suited to the Premier League as the game is faster and more direct with more goals scored on average than in the Champions League.

Should we take the lead Wenger may move Eduardo to the left to help us in possession and give us a stronger base for a counter attack. I would prefer for him to leave it as it is so we constantly have a threat going forward. Having two strikers will always increase the possibility to score and kill the game off.

When Adebayor headed the ball against the crossbar when it seemed easier to score it summed up his evening; nothing seemed to go right for him. Overall he did not have the best of games as his touch let him down frequently and he seemed lost up front on his own. Ade has 19 goals in 23(+1) appearances this season and will look to continue this form. Since his move from Monaco he has fired blanks in Europe but in the league has found goals easier to come by, hopefully he exemplifies that at St Andrews tomorrow.
Likely Arsenal team vs Birmingham





Subs: Almunia, Hoyte, Gilberto, Denilson, Bendtner

We will see two ex-Arsenal players in Larsson and Muamba, the latter posing the main threat to our midfield. If we can bypass the tough -tackling midfielder then we can dominate midfield. Larsson will provide a good supply of crosses which the defence will have to deal with. It is likely that we will have to deal with a direct style similar to the one Birmingham produced at the Emirates.

We need to get back to winning ways after a defeat and a draw and this away game is another character testing game for the lads. I am confident we can win if we keep the ball and take our chances.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Arsenal 0 Milan 0 - Still all to play for...

We go to the San Siro with a 0-0 draw. On the face of it, that is a good result, a clean sheet at home and any away goal puts us in a strong position. That’s the realistic view but any fan that watched that game must be disappointed. The atmosphere was amazing on the first big European night at the Emirates.

We dominated the game and out played Milan. The work rate was fantastic all night as every player played his heart out. Kaka, Pirlo and Seedorf were shackled by Fabregas and Flamini who were brilliant throughout. Clichy and Sagna provided width over and over and Hleb linked everything together.

It was the perfect response to Saturday; we just could not score tonight. Like Liverpool did last night we closed them down at every opportunity and they had no time to settle. We went into every challenge determined to win the ball and most of the time we did exactly that. The fight and commitment was certainly there tonight.

The game could have been so different though after only 5 minutes. With Toure off the pitch we lost concentration and I could see Maldini run across our penalty box to meet the early corner. Once more Lehmann showed why Wenger kept him on, he still is a good goalkeeper. His save was top quality and it took me back to our run to the final 2 years ago. To then catch the cross and release the mightiest of throws was awesome, it was the Jens Lehmann show once again; Pato certainly knew he was there as Lehmann approached with his usual anger. He must improve his kicking though, it was awful.

Toure’s injury was a wierd one and no one at the Emirates was sure what happened but he has a calf injury. From personal experience I know they can be really annoying if such an injury persists but he shouldn’t be out for too long. Right now though, I wouldn’t want anyone ahead of Senderos at the back.

Tonight, Phil was a rock. Many - including me - were worried his lack of pace might be exposed by Pato and Kaka but he has clearly been improving his game as he read the game so well to make up for it. Tony Adams was not fast but he was always one step ahead, Senderos was the same tonight. He made countless challenges when Milan moved into dangerous positions, one in particular was brilliant as Kaka moved in on goal.

Gallas called for fight and passion and tonight he certainly played his part. Along with Senderos he kept Pato so quiet and I just hope he can produce the same in the San Siro. Senderos and Gallas have struck up a great partnership and have conceded very few goals. They will be key in the San Siro, as will Sagna and Clichy.

Special praise for Sagna who has just lost his brother. To come back so quickly and play the way he did, what a soldier! For footballers, playing this game is their lives and such a game is probably the way Sagna wanted to remember his brother and for that I salute you Baka!

Clichy just continued the way he has performed all season and was solid at the back when put under pressure but got forward all the time and put in some dangerous crosses; there was just no one on the end of it. The pace he has really helps on the cover when someone does run over the top. He has boundless energy and has been one of our best, and most importantly, most consistent players this season.

Eboue proved once again why he is the most frustrating player in our squad. He started well as Sagna and Eboue doubled up on Maldini and he made some good in roads from the right side. However, after 10 minutes he went missing again. In the second half he had our best chance of the game up until that point and emphasised why is goal tally this season is at the mighty number of zero.

Theo should have been on the pitch much much earlier. Giving him six minutes was a mistake with Eboue playing so badly. Granted Eboue could have had a penalty but once that went against him it was time to inject some fresh pace. Within 3 minutes he had created our best chance all night, simply because he was positive and went at his man. Eboue constantly slows the play down but Milan’s ageing defence did not want someone running at them.

Eduardo played on the left but I am still not sure if 4-5-1 is the best way. Away at the San Siro maybe it will be best but at home we should have gone with two up top. Eduardo did play well out there though and showed some good moments and brilliant work rate. He is a massive threat up front and we did take that away. The logic was that having Hleb as the extra man to link midfield to attack would be the way to open Milan up. This did not happen though I felt. Hleb was caught too far back and Ade became isolated.

In the middle Flamini had Kaka in his pocket all night. Kaka found space like always but Flamini stuck to him like a bad smell. One moment summed up his season as we saw a battle of the titans between Gattuso and Flamini. Both went in hard and although neither really came out on top, it was brilliant to see. Flamini has made a massive difference to our side this season and if he can produce the same in Milan it could be key.

Alongside Fabregas finally showed his best football. He has been out of sorts but the big stage brought the best out of him. His passing was spot on, his skill and taclking were all spot on. His link up play with Hleb is wonderful to watch but when it got him through on ball his shooting let him down. Twice he did not test the keeper as much as he should have; symptomatic of Arsenal this evening.

When I mentioned the 4-5-1, I pointed out that Ade got a bit isolated tonight but he did not help himself. In my eyes his performance was poor. His hold up play was not what it normally is and his shooting boots were left at home. How he did not score at the end, I still do not know. Missing such an importance chance is pretty unforgivable in my opinion. Hopefully he makes up for it in the San Siro and breaks his European duck then.

I know we should have won the game but before the game many would take a 0-0 draw. One goal in the San Siro puts us thoroughly in the driving seat with the away goals rule and we know now we can play Kaka out of the game. Milan will be a bigger threat at home but in a way this might help us as they come out of their shells a bit more. The counter attack is still a huge weapon for this Arsenal side. By then we might have the likes of Rosicky and Van Persie back and that could help us hugely.

Either way we need to put this behind us but still take heart from it. The League is up now and the return leg is in two weeks. Once Brum and Villa are out of the way then we can look at the 2nd leg. More of the same will do from now until then.

Arsenal vs Milan - How Will The Lads React?

The title says it all really? After the 4-0 drubbing it is key Wenger motivates the squad ahead of a massive game, potentially a season defining one. If we mess this up I believe it will take something special to make sure it does not happen in the league.

After we lost 5-1 to Spurs we went and won 4 consecutive games, scoring 11 goals in the process, conceding only one. How I would love to see something similar. Even though the team that started Saturday’s game is unlikely to start Wednesday’s game, losing to a rival so heavily hurts the squad as a whole and they need to prove they really have the "mental strength" and "hunger" Arsene Wenger has mentioned on so many occasions this season.

The last time we played an Italian team in this competition we faced Juventus at home and produced one of our best performances of the season to ruin Patrick Vieira’s return to Highbury. Another 2-0 win would do very nicely. I do not see Milan being as open at the back as Juventus were that night. What they will have is a far older side than the one from Turin and with our youthful energy we have the opportunity to carve them open.

We must play to our strengths: quick passing, clever movement and midfield dominance. The defence of Milan can be beaten as most of them are getting on. The movement of our strikers and midfield runners will be the key to this.

Milan are extremely strong in the midfield area and this will be the key battle. Like Flamini does for us they will have Gattuso to try and stifle and attacks with his constant running, harrying and strong tackling. The battles between Gattuso and Fabregas, and Kaka and Flamini could be the decisive factor. Milan will probably line up as so:






Pirlo will be more advanced than Gattuso and Ambrosini and will look to link the defensive six to the attacking 3. Kaka will be the main threat as always and Flamini will have to get close to him as much as possible. The wily old head that is Clarence Seedorf will still be one we have to watch. He must be closed down as his shot is as lethal as anyone’s in Europe.

I remember the Champions League final of last year and their second goal summed them up perfectly. With Mascherano off the pitch, Kaka was finally given space and with one fantastic defence splitting pass he released Inzaghi. The chance was not an easy one but he showed a cool head and made it look easy. They can burst into action at any time and will invariably take their chances. We must stay alert at all times or we could be punished.

That is enough of the Milan team but what about the Arsenal side. Almunia is likely to still be out but Lehmann was the only one who performed with any crediility on Saturday and he will want to show the manager once again he can do the business on the big stage. We cannot afford one slip up from Jens however and I hope he improves his goal kicks!

The partnership of Toure and Gallas failed horribly on Saturday and with Senderos looking good right now I hope we see Senderos back in the side. Gallas and Senderos have played well together recently and it seems wrong to fix something that is not broken. Clichy was carrying the injury that has the largest chance of keeping him out and Sagna is away grieving the loss of his brother.
All of us at insidearsenal wish Baka and his family our best wishes.

We must not push Sagna to return however much we need him right now. He may decide the best thing to do is get straight back on the pitch and try and win this game for his club, he may feel his brother would have wished as much. He also might feel it is too early and that is fully understandable. Whatever he decides he must have the full support of the squad and the fans.

Should both full backs be unavailable to return, Hoyte and Traore could be drafted in again. However, after such a horrid performance from the two of them against Man Utd I would prefer to see somethng different. They are likely to be low on confidence and we need to be as solid as possible for this game. Wenger could go with Hoyte alongside Toure, Senderos and Gallas; the latter at left back. I would like to see the same set up if only Sagna returns. If Clichy is fit to return but Sagna chooses to take more time with his family then I would like to see Toure moved out to right full back as he did against PSV last season.

To stifle Milan’s midfield Wenger could go with 4-5-1 but it would take away a significant part of our attack. Adebayor and Eduardo have developed a brilliant partnership and been scoring regularly when they play together in a front two. Whenever Eduardo is moved to the left he looks lost and has a reluctance to track back. He is wasted out wide so I hope to see him up front on Wednesday.

Wenger could put Eduardo on the bench and go with Gilberto in the midfield with Flamini and Fabregas. As the home side I feel we have to go for it and try and take a lead to the San Siro. Playing two midfielders who are defensive minded is a risky stategy, especially with the form Fabregas is in right now. He rarely ventures into the opposition box like he did at the start of the season and has not had the same spark lately.

Hleb and Eboue will be in the side also but I hope we don’t see a similar set up to the one from Saturday. When we had Hleb and Eduardo in the same team, I could not understand playing the striker in midfield and the midfielder up front. Wenger hoped Hleb could link the midfield to the attack but he did nothing of the sort. Hleb should play on the left where he can get at the full back with his clever dribbling and good passing. Eboue needs to do the same and show us a performance that warrants his place in the side.

EDITED 19th February

It turns out that Sagna and Clichy will be back which is massive news. It also gives Wenger a decision to make over who partners Gallas. Wenger said that Flamini and Gilberto will play but did not specify if it was from the start. In my view Flamini will definitely start the game but I can see Gilberto partnering him in centre midfield with Cesc out on the right ala Blackburn at home.





We need a massive improvement from Saturday and I feel that the addition of certain players that missed out on Saturday could be the key. Milan will fear the pace our team possesses and we must use this. We blew Juventus off the park two years ago with similar tactics and if we do the same we could be in luck.

It is the first big European night at the Emirates and we must make the atmosphere electric. Everyone, bring your scarves!

Defensive Options - Toure And Gallas? Gallas And Senderos? Toure And Senderos?

Having watched our defence get torn apart by Manchester United, I felt the defence was an issue that needed to be discussed. First of all I have some stats for you all:

We began the season with a centre back pairing of Kolo Toure and William Gallas. That however changed when Gallas became injured once again. When Senderos returned from his own injury he got a run in the side alongside Kolo. During this time they kept 6 clean sheets in a row when they were both on the pitch, during a spell of 7 games.

Played: 7 Won: 7Conceded: 2 (1 with Senderos off the field of play) (0.3 goals per game)

After this, William Gallas was welcomed back into the side for the visit of Bolton and remained in the side from then until January alongside Toure. During this time we:

Played: 14 (excl. Carling Cup) Won: 9 Drew: 4 lost: 1Conceded: 10 (0.7 goals per game)

When Toure left for the ACON, Wenger had little choice but to go with a Senderos/Gallas partnership. During this period we:

Played: 6 Won: 5 Drew: 1Conceded: 2 (0.3 goals per game)

Therefore, despite many fans’ criticism towards Phil, when he has been in the side we have conceded far less goals per game than when Toure and Gallas were together. Granted, they have played a larger amount of games together than any of the other combinations, but overall Senderos has played just as many with one of the other centre backs. The games have been just as difficult with him in the side also.

It seems that when given a run in the side Senderos improves game by game and has a brilliant record in the side. Is he a better natural centre back than the other two? Well…it is hard to answer that question as they are all so different. However, a combination of Senderos and one out of Toure and Gallas seems to work best.

Toure and Gallas are very fast players who are good in the tackle and like to defend on the ground. They often use their pace to cut out through balls and balls in behind. However, they both lack one vital thing, something Senderos has and that is ability in the air. Most of the goals Arsenal conceded with Toure and Gallas at centre back came from crosses and set pieces. We saw on Saturday that we are weak in this area without someone like Big Phil to dominate the area. Three of the goals Man Utd scored were from crosses and a lack of marking and dominance of the aerial ball.

The way we play when they play together however is more suited to our game. We play a very high line and look to put pressure on the opposition from the back forward. We can afford to do this with the recovery pace they both possess. However, as said, if we are pushed back into our own area, as we were on Saturday, we often find ourselves in trouble when someone like Senderos is not in the side.

The high line we play is risky with Senderos in the team as we rely on Toure or Gallas to make the recovery. On a few occasions it has been Senderos who tries to play the offside trap and is the last man out of the defence. When this happens, it is almost impossible for the other centre back to get back as his movement is away from his goal. The main advantage comes from the dominance when we are put under substantial pressure. Each one has its pros and cons.

I touched on what Toure and Gallas do not have but mentioned what they do have. Senderos is not blessed with pace, we all know that, and he can be caught out by clever forward play where acceleration is used. I ask you though, was Tony Adams that fast? No he was not but he read the game so well. You can see in Senderos’ game that he is exactly this and with time and time on the pitch, this will develop. Many defences have a blend of pace and height. Look at Manchester United, although Ferdinand is decent in the air, it is Vidic who generally will look to win the aerial battle, with Rio there to sweep up anything with his speed.

William Gallas did this alongside John Terry when he was at Chelsea and looks comfortable doing the same when he plays with Senderos. Cast your minds back to the Champions League run that took us to the final. At the heart of the defence were Toure and Senderos. During that time we kept 10 clean sheets in a row and we saw the perfect blend of height and pace. Toure was always there to clean up anything Senderos failed to win with the first challenge and we were solid when anything came long.

Toure has the tendency to be drawn out of position and this can leave gaping holes at the back. When this happens it is unlikely Senderos has the pace to cover him. The goals conceded during this partnership often came from defending of this kind. When Toure is disciplined, they have been our most reliable partnership

It seems to me therefore that a, if you like, little and large combination works best. However, their are times when this is not the case. When a team has two quick strikers and do not look to get the ball into the box so much, pace is often the key. Toure and Gallas are not always required to attack the ball in the air. Saying that, most teams are aware that Arsenal are weak in this area and look to take advantage of this. Below are three matches where we have been exploited in this area:

Aston Villa 1 Arsenal 2 - Although we won the game, John Carew was an absolute nightmare as balls came in constantly.Arsenal 2 Tottenham 1 - Berbatov controlled the game in the final third as he was given so much time to pluck the ball out of the air unchallenged.Manchester United 4 Arsenal 0 - A clear example here as 3/4 goals came from balls whipped in.

Had we had a dominant figure like Senderos in these games, I am sure we would have been far more assured as a back line. There are still doubts over Senderos, he really needs to play brilliantly against one man to prove to himself really he can do the business at the highest level. That man is Didier Drogba. On countless occasions he has been a thorn in Senderos’ side with a mixture of power and strength.

The key for Senderos is to get a run in the side. It takes him time to settle and I am never confident of seeing the best of him when he is thrust into a game on the back of no playing time. Wenger has to make a decision but I feel the Man Utd game may have been a wake up call that we have looked more assured with a tall guy to dominate at the back.

With the centre backs dealt with I will move onto the full back options we have. Unlike the three centre backs we currently have, I am in no doubt that Sagna and Clichy are our 1st choice full backs; in fact I am sure every Arsenal fan is sure of this. This season they have been outstanding both defensively and going forward. Teams find it hard to get round us and hate it when the two of them get forward with an end product on many occasions.

What I want to look at is who we have in reserve and what Wenger could do if these players prove they are not yet good enough. We have seen that Wenger sees Hoyte and Traore as the natural back-ups to Sagna and Clichy respectively. As we saw on Saturday however, they still have a lot to learn. Hoyte is further along in his education and must learn fast if he is to have a future here. Traore is very much a rough diamond. His main problem is his positioning and Man Utd were quick to make the most of it with countless balls in behind him. He has the pace and attacking skills to be a good full back. His defending however must improve.

Hoyte has played well at times this season but Wenger’s decision to play him at centre back against Spurs backfired horribly has he was taken to pieces by Keane and Berbatov. It clearly knocked his confidence and on Saturday he seemed afraid to tackle or get forward. If he can get his confidence back he can be a good player for us when called upon.

However, it is clear that Traore is not yet ready to come in should Clichy need a rest or be injured. With three more than capable centre backs vying for two positions it is useful to have two that can play at full back. Gallas, as we have seen in an Arsenal shirt can play at left back, Toure on the right also. If Clichy is out I would like to see Gallas play there with Toure and Senderos playing in the centre. I just do not think Traore is ready quite yet.

With both full backs doubtful for Wednesday night Wenger has a big choice to make. Should Sagna make it but Clichy remain on the sidelines then I would like to see Gallas moved to left back and Toure and Senderos in the middle:
This would give us far more security against a good attacking side.If Clichy is available but Sagna cannot make it then I would like to see something similar but with Toure moved to full back instead of Gallas:
You might remember the Champions League match at home to PSV last season when Toure played at right back. He got forward just as an Arsenal right back should. I guess one could argue that Toure is low on confidence after some shaky performances of late but the big occasions brings out the best in Kolo, normally!
There is always Eboue at right back if needed.

To sum up - Although many see Toure and Gallas as our main partnership, it is hard to say for definite that this is correct. Their are many advantages to having Senderos in the side, the stats do not lie after all. I guess it is good to have many different options.