Is Lower League gap closing? F.A. Cup reflection

Well I have to say what a crazy weekend it has been in the FA Cup; shocks a plenty as so-called giants have succumb to the tenacity and spirit of lower league teams. The best thing about the weekend has to be that despite our wobble we managed to dispatch our opponents in Brighton. Arsenal managed to pass their test and avoid being one of the premiership teams to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Whistle is blown; game is won and successful passage into the next round achieved; no shameful exit and no unwanted replay on the agenda. It seems a long time since we were able to glide under the radar unnoticed and I quite like it that way.

Now our focus turns to Wednesday against Liverpool, the fans are happy and now it’s down to Arsene Wenger to ensure that the weekend’s events do not spawn any complacency. Liverpool will be down but it can certainly act as a motivation for them to right their wrongs with an instant response against us. Arsenal need to want it more than Liverpool and that means we need to turn that spring in our step into a determined and focused stamp of intent.

It’s a bit too early for a pre-match review of the Liverpool game on Wednesday so I will turn my attentions back to the giant killing of the weekend. It certainly raises the question of whether the gap in quality from the elite in the premiership is becoming shortened against lower placed teams.

In Arsene’s long stint as manager he managed to hold onto a record of never losing to lower league opposition in cup football. That was broken eventually against Burnley a few years ago when he fielded a young team in a quarter-final of the Carling Cup. Even then it was shrugged off because of the team selected; fast forward to this season and the loss on penalties to Bradford in the Capital One Cup. On this occasion we selected the strongest team we possibly could in that tie, no kids were anywhere near the starting eleven or the bench and yet we managed to go out of the competition.

bradford fc Jack Wilshere

Bradford fans celebrate around Jack

 

We may not have been outplayed by Bradford and it did seem it was one of those days where nothing seemed to work for the team but at the end of the day given the standing of both clubs in their respective leagues there should have only been one outcome. We went out and will always look back on that moment with embarrassment and as a permanent reality check in our clubs history.

Now you look at that result and say Bradford played the game of their lives and should enjoy the moment before being brought back down to earth in the Semi’s against Aston Villa. Yes Villa was at the time going through one of their worst runs of form in recent years but they had two legs to get it right. How wrong were we? Bradford took the game to Aston Villa, refused to bow down to Premier league opposition and deservedly earned their place in the League Cup Final against Swansea City.

Now we look at the results pulled off by the likes of Leeds, Oldham and Luton Town. When the fourth round draw was made you would be forgiven for assuming you would see Tottenham, Liverpool and Norwich in the draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup. One upset out of the three at a push but for all three to finish in favour of the underdog is quite a feat. Each of those teams deservedly won their games and the fans of those premiership teams cannot begrudge them their moment.

Leeds celebrate

Leeds celebrate against Spurs

 

Is the gap closing on the elite because of a raise in standard of lower league teams or is the so-called quality of the elite teams that are going out to these lower league teams reducing. I will include Arsenal in this question because of the Bradford result; you could probably say it’s a mixture of both factors. We certainly would not expect such results in the days of Vieira and Henry and even the most positive of Arsenal fans would admit our standard has declined over recent years; the lack of silverware is evidence enough.

Lower league teams have stepped up their quality over the years, gone are the days where every league below the premiership resorted to long ball football. As more and more young managers influenced by the workings of their successful managers from their playing days bring to their new jobs all the techniques they learned it becomes a lot evident when you watch lower league games in action. You will still get the odd long ball teams but there is a growing number of more and more passing teams that play good football in the championship and lower divisions.

oldham celebrate

Oldham celebrate Liverpool scalp

 

One other massive factor I would highlight from the recent giant killing is the psychological focus that is maintained by the underdog teams. They fight like it is their life depended on it and when watching the games you can see that they want it that bit more than their more privileged opponents. Complacency is a big failing in the so-called big teams and the managers struggle to motivate their players to give 100% when they know they are playing smaller teams.

It has reached the point where a top-tier team has to psychologically prepare for a game against Luton town the same way they would against Barcelona. It’s easier said than done and that is one of the failings that stun some of these top teams. It isn’t a case of just turning up and expecting the opposition to be star struck by your attendance.

That is exactly why the next round for Arsenal against Blackburn cannot be taken lightly; we know them well from their time in the premiership but given their standing now we will have to expect demand a fully focused performance.

It is our last realistic chance of silverware this season (the Champions League though not impossible will be a tough task) and the Bradford result should be motivation enough to not take this game for granted.

Enjoy your day people.

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Is it time to accept no players will join this January?

There is no better master at pulling the wool over your eyes in a press conference than our very own Arsene Wenger. As we move ever so closely to the closure of the January Transfer Window the signing of players at the club is a big fat zero and it’s now hard to envisage that changing.

wenger press conf

As Arsenal fans we have to trust in the manager’s thinking and believe he has explored every option and has made the best choices to benefit the club. I still believe this season will be make or break for the manager and he will live or die based on the decisions he makes or fails to make during this window if at least 4th place isn’t achieved this season. The board won’t necessary sack him, he has their trust as he has taken position in the front line and used his earned respect from Arsenal fans to deflect all the negativity.

That respect has been chipped away over the years as the patience has run thin with many fans, this season especially has seen many question whether he is the man to turn our fortunes back around without the willingness to spend the money that is regularly touted as available to spend on players.

The problem for Arsene this season is this has been one of the most inconsistent campaigns competed by the Arsenal in recent years. There has been no sustained run of form to calm the disbelievers. Like a pot threatening to bubble over there has been no one to turn down the fire, the pot keeps on bubbling and refusing to go away, one way or the other it’s going to get messy.

For every one or two games we come away with a good result there follows an awful game that reinforces that the squad is maybe not good enough to compete for the title (or even 4th place). The further we fall behind in the title race the more the fans call for changes, the fact our best player last season is now sitting pretty at the top of the table for Manchester United stings the tails of all the passionate Gooners out there.

It seems with every defeat Wenger has talked to the media and claimed he is looking for the right players to improve the squad but with every victory he then champions the players we already have and pleads the case for not adding players.

He is content with the squad stating that he has able cover for every position and so the squad is satisfactory for him but one glance at the premier league table shows us more than 20 points behind the leaders. I refuse to condemn the manager but it doesn’t stop me from assessing where we are at right now and applying some logic to the situation.

M'vila: Potential move tarnished by his antics

M’vila: Potential move tarnished by his antics

If we accept that Arsene will only sign exceptional players that become available during the window we must also recognize exceptional players do not become available unless they have done something fundamentally wrong to force them into the situation. Once a player falls under that bracket then they rule themselves out of an Arsenal move because Wenger would not sign a disruptive or dirty player. The only way to sign an exceptional player is to actively seek out the talent, negotiate and make them and their club an offer they can’t refuse. That’s the only way it works, if we can’t guarantee titles we don’t have the bargaining chips to ensure an exceptional player would want to join us. So apart from players with release clauses in their contracts I don’t hold too much optimism to seeing a marquee signing to boost our season.

Emmanuel Frimpong yesterday sealed a loan move to Fulham for the rest of the season, could that signal the one in one out policy Arsene talked about? Who knows, in the grand scheme of things it’s a good move for Frimpong; another chance to prove himself in the premiership and overcome the injury sustained last year.

Beyond the talk of the transfer window we have a game coming up today against Brighton in the one competition we have a realistic chance of picking up silverware, the FA Cup. Maybe in the past this may have been looked upon as a fixture that shouldn’t pose too many problems, a draw as a worst case scenario. However the result against Bradford has put everything into perspective and Brighton cannot be taken for granted. Wenger’s pre-match talk has already been done for him; he only needs to hold up a newspaper clipping from that game to the players; they don’t need reminding of what complacency can give you.

Lets hope the boys approach the game focused and grind out a win with a good performance.

Enjoy your day people.

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Theo Walcott creates a shift in Arsenal history

The moment Theo Walcott put pen to paper on his new contract yesterday it marked a moment in Arsenal history that could be looked back on as a turning point in Arsenal fortunes. The signing is much deeper than securing the services of a promising young player with so many years ahead of him to make history for the club.

Although the signing of Walcott in addition to the five youngsters who penned new deals earlier this season has gone a long way to stabilising the team and securing a British spine of the team for the future it is still the one secured for Walcott that is the most important/significant.

theo applaud

The reason why I am saying this is for the club to retain the services of Theo Walcott taking into account the stage he was at with his contract it showed to the fans that the club was able to secure the services of a star asset who had held all the cards in terms of their career choice.

When the last transfer window shut at the end of August with Theo not signing a contract in many fans eyes, myself included it seems the days of Walcott as an Arsenal player were over. We had been there before in recent times with former captain Robin Van Persie; once he reached the stage where he could talk to other clubs his departure was inevitable.

Much like Samir Nasri before him the players were the ones that had the power over the club in negotiations and dictated proceedings. Arsenal is too big a club to be the ones taking the runner up spot in any standoff with their players. The years haven’t been too kind to the club in the past 8 years meaning negotiation powers have weakened, the lack of silverware has certainly dented the clubs standing amongst other big clubs. Where in the past players would want to play for a club based on their admiration for their style of play and history this has been overtaken by the desire for quick silverware and/or extortionate wages.

All those years back Matthieu Flamini started the trend when he upped sticks and headed for AC Milan on a free; the club has since struggled at times in negotiations to persuade players that Arsenal were going places as their contracts moved rapidly towards the final year.

flamini gooner

This is why when Theo Walcott signed the contract when he was in a position to start negotiations with any club of his and his agent’s choice it could signal a buck in the trend. It sent out a message to all that Arsenal does have the power to hold onto its star players even at its most vulnerable in negotiation proceedings.

Many will mention that the reported wages of £100k are a bit over the top for Theo, maybe they are but sometimes you have to pay that little extra to show your ambition. If Theo was to decide to move on he would have commanded that £100k wage elsewhere with plenty suitors out there so to convince him to stay was a big moment for the club.

To discuss his transition to striker or his recent surge in set piece duties is for another time, right now we need to acknowledge and salute Theo Walcott for surprising a lot of us in committing himself to the club and now focus on moving on as part of a core of players that will take Arsenal forward (hopefully introducing some silverware to the barren trophy cupboard in the process).

Young Theodore James Walcott you may have dragged your heels over the past 6 months but you made the right decision in the end, you will not regret your choice.

Enjoy your day people.

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Several points from Gunner’s win over Swansea

We won the game; we are into the next round, that’s all that matters isn’t it? With morale low in the team and frustration high amongst the fans the win over Swansea was the perfect tonic. There were as many plusses as there were negatives from the game but we have finally managed to break the hoodoo which Swansea seemed to have had over us this season.

I won’t give a match report on the game; I am sure the majority of you watched the game and/or know the outcome however I will discuss some points that became apparent to me from viewing the game.

Wilshere is a class above

jack celebrates

In a season of ups and downs so far one of the biggest boosts to the team is return of Jack Wilshere from injury. He has shaken off the rust, integrated himself back into the Arsenal engine room and is now at the point where he can dominate games. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is Arsenal through and through it is a refreshing sight to see him in full swing. Teams now recognize him as the danger man and target him. Manchester city put that into practise at the weekend but it didn’t break him. As much as I love Santi Cazorla, given his early season form he became a target and at times would play within himself when given the extra attention. Jack has now been receiving similar attention but has managed to brush off the extra attention and still graft it out. Some of the challenges he has been on the end of I am surprised he has got up from many of them but that just shows the steel he has acquired to complement his majestic skill and control. Yesterday Jack put in a man of the match performance which was well deserved despite close competition from Michel Vorm. He drove on the team and was an inspiration leading by example, the icing on the cake was his winning goal to take us through to the next round.

Diaby not broken

It was encouraging to see Abou Diaby starting the game yesterday; after his long layoff he returned to the team on Sunday and managed to play the majority of the game against Citeh with an extra man. I honestly thought that would be too much for his body and so to see him start against Swansea was a nice boost. Could he be over the injuries this season? We’ve been there too many times to be optimistic about that but if he can avoid an absence that lasts as long as the last injury then we will be on to a good thing. His presence in the team provides assurance as he patrols the middle like a big brother to look out for the likes of Wilshere and Cazorla. I hope to see a lot more of the leggy Frenchman for the rest of the season.

Coquelin proves worth

Francis Coquelin earned a starting berth against Swansea, less of a surprise due to the injury to Mikel Arteta. Whether his selection was deemed by default or not the young Frenchman provided an encouraging performance to show Arsene he can be trusted to perform in the absence of first choice Arteta. He hasn’t reached the point where he dominates from defensive midfield but that’s hardly expected when he hasn’t had a run of games yet to sharpen up his craft. His mobility is one of his great attributes and he offers more to his game than just breaking up play. Wenger may not have started him in many games but he has been here and thereabout in the first team squad often utilized from the bench. Arteta’s injury is a worry but Coquelin can use this opportunity to his advantage and prove any doubters wrong and most importantly give Arsene a massive nudge.

Welcome clean sheet

It was nice to claim a clean sheet last night, the soft goals have been creeping in of late and so it was encouraging to have a complete shut out. The defence actually put in a good performance, there were the odd scares but in general the team remained focused and kept the Swansea threat to a minimum. The introduction of Michu in the second half which usually equals a goal against us didn’t materialize; this was the perfect outcome leading into the big game at the weekend. We now have a foundation to build on; Chelsea will offer a far different threat but it is still important we remembered how to stop teams scoring.

Too many chances missed

giroud miss

The one nil score line was not a reflection of the amount of chances we had last night. Although Michel Vorm was on a one man mission to thwart anything thrown at the Swansea goal there were a number of chances that you would expect us to score regardless of who was in goal. It was bordering on the point where you felt it was one of those days and Swansea would probably nick a late goal to rub chilli, sand and bleach into your eyes. Thankfully Jack had different plans but the profligacy was worrying and very frustrating on the night. Possibly we were saving up the accurate finishing for Sunday, I sure hope so, Walcott and Giroud I’m talking to you.

Empty stadium seats

Much fuss was being made over the number of empty seats seen last night. I believe it is being slightly blown out of proportion; in my experience cup replays have slightly lower attendances unless it’s a game against one of the big boys. Tickets go on sale for less time than a standard league game due to the unpredictability of having to play a replay. Add to the conundrum it is cold as hell outside at the moment, a freezing Wednesday versus the comfort of the couch and TV I think there is only one winner. I certainly don’t think the empty seats were some sort of protest from the fans and it is just mitigating circumstances that resulted in the gaps. Seats are paid for so I don’t think the Arsenal money men will be worrying too much. I think this topic is a non story; the commentators just needed something to talk about.

Bartley’s comfortable performances

bartley swan

It’s quite frustrating to see Kyle Bartley perform so well against us over the two third round games. You would half expect him to be torn a new one by our forward line but Bartley put in a performance to make a mockery of our decision to let him leave without giving him a chance. A lot of investment was put into the acquisition and development of Bartley and after his loan at Rangers you would think he would be pushing for a first team place. It may have been impatience on his part but I feel he could have offered something to our team if he stayed. His encouraging performance’s against Arsenal makes the fact we still have the likes of Squillaci still on the payroll a bit of a dampener. I am basing this only on two games and former players do tend to raise their performance against their former employee but it will be interesting to see how the career of Kyle Bartley develops here on in.

Enjoy your day people.

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Nothing goes right on bad day for Gunners

Arsenal doesn’t like doing things straight forward; there’s always some sort of complication that makes an evaluation impossible to bracket as black and white. Tensions are high amongst Arsenal fans; we have been frustrated at the lack of any sort of signings to boost/strengthen the team. We have also spent the last 7 days hearing announcements that Theo Walcott has signed his contract only to discover nothing official from anyone that actually matters in the whole situation. Earlier in the day former player Robin Van Persie again found himself on the score-sheet to take Manchester United 10 points clear at the top, another dig in the ribs of frustrated Gooners.

Everything seemed to be falling in place to put Arsene Wenger straight into the firing line if we did not come away from the Man City game with a positive game, performance and result. Leading up to the game there were some signs that something was slightly skewiff. Firstly the news filtered through beforehand that the game was under threat due to a suspicious package being located outside the Emirates that resulted in the area being closed off to the public. The threat was quickly dealt with however rumours circulated that Mikel Arteta was in fact injured and would not be involved in the game, which was proved right and seemed another strike thrown into the mix before we even kicked a ball. The biggest factor to affect our game and pour cold water over the Arsenal fans optimism was the dismissal of Laurent Koscielny just 9 minutes into the game. A game changer indeed and so early in the match that any hopes of winning the game were heavily reduced. For the record it was a penalty, I would not deny that however the award of a red card is debatable. I could talk until I am blue in the face dissecting the decision of Mike Dean but that won’t change anything.

mike dean pen

It spoiled what had the potential to be a good game and from then on the defeat was an inevitable outcome. The injustice of the red card in a way deflected the rage that was going to be directed towards Arsene Wenger for some of his recent actions, comments and inactivity in the transfer market. You cannot really critique the performance of a team that was handicapped with one less player for the majority of the match.

So from the events of yesterday I have a few points to raise:

Koscielny didn’t help the situation.

koscielny hold

Depending on what side of the fence you sit on he either deserved to go or he didn’t. What was conclusive from the incident was he did have his arm around Eden Dzeko and therefore deserved to be penalised for the incident. If he received only a yellow card we still would have had to face a penalty in the first 10 minutes. All season the team have been conceding unnecessary goals and if converted (in the alternate universe where Koscielny received only a yellow) that would have been another on the list. Our French defender although a favourite of many fans, has a knack of the odd silly moments. He has quite a few red cards already during his spell with Arsenal and I think it’s time that Arsene or Stevie Bould had a word with him on being a bit more aware of the consequences of his action when in the box. We can’t rely on Referees to use common sense in games so the best policy is to not give them any reason to make their rash decisions.

New players are contributing to their teams.

In a so far inactive transfer market for Arsene, fans cannot help but notice that players are scoring for their new clubs. Daniel Sturridge managed to get on the score-sheet earlier in the day with Liverpool, Demba Ba has got off the mark for Chelsea already and looked to have settled at his new club. It’s just a sign to show what kind of impact a new signing could have on the team. I know any new signing  would have been just as powerless as the players on the field yesterday once we went down to 10 men and so my argument doesn’t have much standing but I still believe our current squad has gone a bit stale and returning injured players will not revitalize it. New blood is needed the sooner the better.

Arteta injury means big problems.

The news of Arteta’s injury is not welcome news at all. Arsene has ruled him out for the rest of the month and the question is how do we cope with the loss of our Spanish pass master? Arteta has made the defensive midfield position his own this season and his ever-present season so far hasn’t drawn up the dilemma of where suitable cover would come from. Abou Diaby slotted into the role yesterday however being his first game back after his long absence it will be wishful thinking to believe he can cover until Arteta returns. His body will most likely require some recovery after his shift yesterday, the extra running having to deal with an extra man won’t help at all. The other option on offer is the two young guys could step up to the mark. Francis Coquelin has been on the fringes of the first team all season without ever threatening to oust any of the starting midfielders. With the injury to Arteta, an indication of Wenger’s true belief in the young Frenchman was shown by the manager choosing to play Diaby in front of him. With the games coming thick and fast this January he is bound to get a chance at some point but it’s important to see how he overcomes this first rejection. Emmanuel Frimpong is also back at Arsenal after his loan spell at Charlton and could be in contention for a place; I would expect Coquelin to get preference over the Ghanaian but would not be surprised if he does make an appearance this month.

Walcott performances up front need adapting.

theo v kompany

The longer the contract situation with Theo Walcott continues the more stringent his performances will be critiqued. Once again the young Englishman was given a chance in his preferred position up front but once again he came up short. With a continued run of games he is bound to improve but his contribution in that position needs more variety than just running off the shoulder of the last defender. After the 7-3 victory over Newcastle it was quite clear where Theo’s strengths lied but after that game opposing teams did their homework and decided it might not be best playing a high line against him. This has resulted in him being quite ineffective when he is not running onto long balls. The sending off didn’t help him yesterday as the added contribution of Oxlade-Chamberlain was taken away. There has also been a recent increase in Theo taking set pieces; it does make you wonder if his ongoing contract negotiations are resulting in him receiving special treatment from his colleagues. I think there are players better place to take the set plays and I think he needs to concentrate on scoring goals if he plays as the striker in the team. Once he masters that side of his game then he can expand into contributing to the set plays, you can’t become Thierry Henry overnight after all. In conclusion what I’m trying to say is with all the hassle over the new contract Theo needs to show he has more in his locker to justify the efforts to keep him.  It’s starting to look like Wenger will not spend again and so more responsibility will lie on Theo’s shoulders to prove the managers stinginess is the right decision.

We now face Swansea in the F.A. Cup third round replay this week, our biggest chance for a trophy this season. Let’s hope the Arsenal can get over yesterday’s result very quickly.

Enjoy your day people.

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