Friday, 21 September 2012

Here's the big test: Manchester City preview.

Since Man City became a top team, a trip to Eastlands has become a real acid test. Arsenal's 3-0 win at Eastlands in October 2010 was impressive in its own right, but it's particularly noteworthy in light of the series of close results between the two teams since. City dropped just two points at home last season and to pick up a positive result on Sunday would be particularly impressive.

There's certainly a case to be made that Arsenal have performed roughly to expectations so far for a team which will finish in the top four, if you look at the results from last season. Dropping points at home to Sunderland was two points dropped compared to the previous campaign, but a win against Southampton was better than two points dropped against Wolves.

In the world where Twitter seems to dictate the moods of many, three consecutive wins is a sign we can compete for the League, and a dodgy draw means sending messages to Aaron Ramsey telling him he's the worst player evah [sic].

In a sensible world, Arsenal have performed creditably in the last three games, but there was enough cause for concern in Montpellier, and the two previous games were against weak(ish) opposition. That's not to say the team hasn't looked good. Having a playmaker, particularly one as good as Cazorla, has improved the team immeasurably. 

Although the criticism that Arsenal were a one man team last year was false, we didn't create enough chances, which meant that there was a certain reliance on Van Persie to take those which fell his way, which he inevitably did. At least so far, the efficiency of our wingers seems enormously improved, which more than counteracts Van Persie's absence, and this is partly down to Cazorla putting them into better positions.

And so, to this particular fixture. In eight years at Arsenal, Van Persie managed one Premier League goal versus City, so it's not as if he has a great record against City for United fans to look forward to or for us to miss. That said, City haven't looked as fragile defensively in a long time as they have in their first few matches last season. For all of Sergio Aguero's goals, City won the League last season (in my eyes) by having the best defence. I would expect them to press us a lot more around the penalty area than they have in their last few matches, which means our players' first touches will need to be on song (yes, I'm looking at you Theo Walcott). 

The reality is that although City have started the season relatively poorly, they've still won both home games they've played, and it's not exactly embarrassing to lose in the Bernabeu. Without Wojciech Szczesny, Mannone will continue in goal, and although he's done well thus far, he hasn't really been tested. Having watched him play for the reserves multiple times over a few years, I've never been convinced that he's a good goalkeeper, and it's hard to think he won't face proper scrutiny on Sunday.

The other area to watch - for me - is central midfield. The one time we've beaten City in the last five attempts, Alex Song caught Yaya Toure on the knee early on, and Toure hobbled around for fifteen minutes before going off injured. Apart from his replacement failing to tackle Arteta before the winning goal, Toure is one of City's best players. Whilst we're certainly a better team without Song, we've lost his physicality, and much will depend on how Diaby and Toure match up.

Whatever happens, I think it will be an interesting and low-scoring game of football, and hopefully we can come out on top!

Keep the faith.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Seven conclusions from Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2

1) If we insist - rightly - on giving new signings a chance, then it's pretty inconsistent to jump to extensive conclusions too quickly. Have Arsenal looked better defensively in the first three games of the season? Yeah, absolutely.

But to argue that this mean we now have the best defence in the League is not so much over-egging the point as scrambling it (if you'll forgive the terrible metaphor).

On two counts it seems a little presumptuous. First, Sunderland didn't even attempt to attack, and yet Szczesny had to save us early on from arguably the clearest chance of the game. Against Liverpool, we conceded 15 shots on goal - one fewer than in the corresponding fixture last season, when we were completely outplayed. Granted Borini did seem to want to shoot from any position, but even so those are high numbers.

On top of the number of shots conceded, some of the distribution in the opening half an hour from Mertesacker and Jenkinson was truly calamitous. I'm not saying the team is poor defensively - it's not; but equally, we shouldn't rest on our laurels.

And this hints at the second point: let's wait until we play a strong attacking team before getting too excited.

2) Talking of Liverpool's attack, it can't be long before attention turns to Luis Suarez, again. His goalscoring record isn't bad - one every three games - but his chance conversion rates are absolutely dire. He's been protected from criticism for his footballing performances by Andy Carroll's price-tag, but Suarez was signed for a hefty 23 million pounds, and really needs to deliver more. The chance he missed late on - while unlikely to have changed the result - was really one he should have taken.

3) Considering how often I complain about decisions going against us, it's worth emphasising how lucky we were not to concede a penalty early in the second half. Yeah, Suarez has a reputation for going over easily but Mertesacker was all over him in the box. On another day, Liverpool would have had a penalty and it might have been a completely different result. Football rests on these small margins.

4) As obvious a point as this is, Abou Diaby was absolutely outstanding yesterday. There are few finer sights in football than watching him stride forward imperiously with the football, and he had ample opportunity to do this, creating several chances in a man of the match display.

Raphael Honigstein tweeted last night that three years ago Wenger said Diaby was the most talented player in the squad. That might be an exaggeration, but I'm still delighted to have Abou back and playing like he can.

5) What next for Theo Walcott? It's hard to believe that Arsenal kept him unless he will sign a new contract, but can the increased terms really be countenanced? His record last season was inflated by playing with a striker as good as Van Persie, and few would suggest picking him currently ahead of Chamberlain or, dare I say it, Gervinho.

I've long failed to 'get' Walcott, and while he's clearly a useful player, I certainly don't think he should be one of - if not the - highest paid players at the club.

Also, as long as Sagna remains injured, Jenkinson doesn't provide the overlap Theo desperately needs to take on a full-back - which could deter Arsene from picking Walcott in the short-term. It's certainly a situation I'll watch with interest.

6) A couple of weeks ago, I thought that Liverpool looked like they could challenge for the top four if they kept their squad and brought in some attacking talent. Instead, they let Andy Carroll go, signed nobody, and look bereft of ideas. Good news for Arsenal in the race for fourth place.

7) Outside Anfield, there is a statue of Marouane Chamakh - the invisible man. When the other two senior strikers at the club start and Chamakh can't even get in the match squad, I do wonder what that says about Wenger's appraisal of Chamakh's talents. And yet, surely, we'll need him to play 15 games this season. Distinctly odd.