The North London Derby is upon us. In the Cult Football camp, this match – more than any other – sees us set against each other. The fires were stoked with this initial lob: Bale isn't even better than Walcott.
On Wednesday against Everton, Arsenal entered the last quarter of the season. The victory and results elsewhere meant that after the first game of the final fourth of the season, we occupy third place, six points separating us from the mega-rich but fifth-placed Blues and one point ahead of the Lilywhites. And with Tottenham and Chelsea to play in the early match Saturday, if we can get three points against Aston Villa, we have a chance to consolidate or extend that lead. (Obviously, we could also blow it, but let’s not go there right now.)
Things are looking pretty decent for the Arsenal, you’d have to say. That statement would have seemed patently absurd in August and the 8-2 at Old Trafford (or the September 4-3 loss to Blackburn, where we scored five of the goals). It might have sounded slightly more reasonable in later fall after a good run of form. Then absurd again after the debacles of January, the FA Cup exit and the annihilation at the San Siro. Now eminently reasonable again. It has been a crazy, roller-coastery season, with Robin van Persie almost singlehandedly pulling the whole team along. When we had an all-centerback back 4, fourth seemed a pipe dream. And now to be in third? What’s a level up from a pipe dream? An industrial-strength morphine-drip dream?
Aside from the recent (awesome) habit of coming from behind to snatch crucial victories, one of the most encouraging pieces of data is in the area of Arsenal’s former shame—goal difference. It took a while to shake off the -6 from Old Trafford, added to other negative takes from Liverpool and other early-season opposition. Still miles behind the Manchester clubs (United, 46; City, 50), Arsenal at 19 leads Tottenham (18) and Chelsea (15). This is good. Robin still scores nearly all the goals, but the defense has stanched the flow of goals against us.
Yet there are still 9 games to go and 27 points to play for. Everything may yet change. To not expect some wrench in the works after the wrenchliness of this season would be naive. Spurs may no longer seem a lock for 3rd, but they can still pull it together to retake 3rd or fight for 4th. Likewise, Arsenal are not a lock for a Champions League spot, but in light of Wednesday’s results, top 4 is now looking more realistic than not.
Arsenal host Villa on Saturday at 11am EST, directly after Chelsea and Spurs face off at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal now have their fate in their own hands. They can focus on their own matches. Win matches, take points and 3rd or 4th is theirs. They don’t need anyone to drop points other than the immediate opponents on the pitch on any given day. Of course, if Chelsea and Spurs can both see fit to drop points and Arsenal can grab another three points tomorrow against the Villans, it may be possible to begin breathing full breaths again. Right now, it’s still too close. Heart in throat is still the order of the day.
Perhaps Liverpool or Newcastle will go on a tear, but at the moment, it seems like the trio of Arsenal, Spurs and Chelsea are the contenders for the two non-Manchester Champions League spots. And while any of the three teams would gladly take 4th, nabbing the automatic CL group-stage position (3rd) could be huge. Arsenal very nearly could have missed out on the CL this year, rubber-duckily squeaking past Udinese when our squad was in major transition mode. Loss to the Italian side would almost certainly have meant one or more of the deadline-day incoming players would have stayed put at their former clubs. (Think: no Arteta, no Mertesacker. And say what you want, Benayoun and Santos have put in good shifts on their days. Park…I wish I could include you here. I’ve honestly barely seen you play. Sorry that you got bamboozled, but congratulations on your military service reprieve!)
Of the top ten teams, Arsenal have only City (4/8) and Chelsea (4/21) ahead, both at home. The Chelsea match in particular could prove very important in the fight for fourth. A tricky tie away at Stoke (4/28) could also prove a clutch match, with the bad blood of recent times (and the fact that Stoke can pull out some good results).
So, do we hope Chelsea takes all 3 points against Spurs, to better our chances for third, or hope for the draw that sends both a little further back if Arsenal takes the full three? A Chelsea win would make things too congested. The prime directive for Arsenal is to keep going forward and to keep ahead of 5th place at all costs. Spurs may be the more traditional enemy, but Chelsea is further back and finishing in the top four is crucial. Third is nice but not essential. Fourth is essential. And knocking a mega-rich club out of the top four is preferable to my eyes than the Spurs bragging rights. Spurs is a good team, and they have imploded just as the Gunners would have wanted, which was really quite neighborly of them. If we take fourth, no more, personally I’d prefer we kept Chelsea out. Roman may lose interest, send the club spiraling into administration and we’d finally have one fewer superpower in the Premier League.
It’s too early to call corners turned, bends bended or anything remotely inside of any bag. But for those wondering, “what changed?” here are some partial comments, if not an all-encompassing Unified Theory.
RVP—He never stopped performing, but fortunately he maintained his incredible shotmaking with such consistency that when the rest of the team got it together it all went firing ahead together. He has led as a captain throughout, added hat-tricks to his personal arsenal and drove Tim Krul to frothy near-fisticuffs with a simple phrase to the extent of, “Not so eager to time-waste now, are you?” Twenty pages could be written about van Persie, and in fact they have already been written elsewhere. He’s broken the calendar-year scoring record for the club, second behind Shearer for league record. Single season records await. Will he stay with the team? More than at other point this season, it seems possible. If we make the top four, and especially if it’s third of four with talk of incoming big names, it may just happen.
Thierry Henry—Some have said that Henry’s return and goal against Leeds in the FA Cup showed the players first-hand the kind of adulation a club legend gets. Henry’s return did that, and in addition to the Leeds winner he scored another crucial late goal against Sunderland that won us the match. He was there for the drubbing at Milan, though, and a bit of a low period to boot, so the turnaround is not due to the Thierry Henry Show alone. But it was great having Titi back in the fold, and as mentioned two of his three goals proved the matchwinners.
Theo Walcott—The current day 14 has been a target of the boo-boys all season. He’s got pace, which works wonders when the opposition gives him space. Except they know this as well, so they’ve stopped giving him space. One could have played a game of Most Unpopular Player a while back and it would have been between Theo and Andrey Arshavin. Now Arshavin’s off to Russia with Zenit and Walcott is playing well. He played out of his skin against Spurs and has been putting in good shifts of late. Whether it’s inspired by Ox envy or whatever, who cares. Theo is playing well. And if we don’t tie him down to a contract there now really are many who would. (And not just Liverpool, who love blowing wads of cash on iffy English lads.)
Wojciech Szczesny—Another for the “good all season” files, the ‘keeper kept the goals-conceded tally as low as he could in the early season and of late has been adding more clean sheets to the mix. The Everton game was won by a team-wide defense. Time was, Szczesny would have had to repel wave after wave of attacks, but in the second half, he was essentially coasting, because the rest of the team didn’t let the threats get close to him. (That said, bad luck to Drenthe for the disallowed goal in the first half.)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—What a breakout season for the teen winger (and occasional attacking midfielder). The “Theo with brains” is also the Theo with brawn. He’s tough, quick, humble and badass. Perhaps he’s really the un-Theo. The substitution of Arshavin for him against Man United in January provoked a response so unbelievably poisonous and vitriolic, it seemed that Wenger’s time at the club had to be over. And yet here we are, with supporters mumbling apologies to the Professor and one of the brightest talents in soccer happily bedded into the team. And of course, since he’s British, he’s got all that slobber to deal with, too. Good on you, Ox. (And good luck to you re: the UK media hype machine.) Looking forward to seeing you and Theo weave side to side with the quickness that causes defensive heads to explode. For years to come.
Tomas Rosicky—Tomas already had a contract extension in the works, but the timing of his revival coincided almost perfectly with its announcement. No goals in two years, and suddenly he’s scoring, assisting and showing the young’uns how it’s done. Perhaps he and Robin used the time spent on adjoining injury tables to mastermind this stage of the proceedings.
Thomas Vermaelen—After a long, long spell on the sidelines, Vermaelen returned and provided some more solidity to the central pairing, except that he got conscripted to left back during the fullback crisis. He did well enough, but it’s clearly not his best position. In a CultFootball dispute a while back in the Fall, it was mooted, “How many Arsenal players could get into the Spurs starting XI?” The questioner thought “maybe Sagna, maybe van Persie in his current run of form.” The maybes were of course absurd, but a main source of contention arrived in the topic of Vermaelen. To me, Vermaelen is a better defender than any Spurs centerback. And he scores! Vermaelen has scored 5 this season, despite all the months on the sidelines. Vermaelen rules.
Alex Song—Going back to the T-ham argument, Scott Parker was deemed better than Song. I still don’t believe it. When I remember some of the perfect passes to van Persie, his versatility on the park, switching to centerback, if needed, there’s no comparison. Parker was a coup of a buy for Spurs—inexpensive, experienced, talented—but he does not measure up to Song who, like van Persie, maintained his form throughout the season and was similarly waiting for the rest of the team to play out of their funk.
Fullbacks—For a long stretch of time, all the fullbacks were out and an unusual Arsenal surplus of centerbacks (and Coquelin) filled in. Djourou flailed, Miquel and Vermaelen did better but not remarkably, Coquelin did well. But now with Bacary Sagna and Kieren Gibbs back in the midst, we have the old system of marauding, overlapping full backs with pace and wingerish attack-mindedness to go with their core defensive work. If any one thing is the “reason” for the comeback, I’d say it’s the return of the specialized fullbacks. Why so far down the list? Fair question. Allow me to attempt to remedy by singling out how awesomely Sagna played against Everton on Wednesday. He won nearly every header and asserted his command in every way possible. Theo is a better Theo when Sagna has his back. With Djourou, not so much.
Centerbacks—After all the hullaballoo about needing quality central defenders in the past few years, this time we had surplus to requirements at the exact right time to plug the fullback holes. Per Mertesacker was a great signing. Some will say he’s too slow. They can say it as much as it pleases them. I don’t think he’s good because of speed, I think he’s good because of the way he reads players and positions himself. Laurent Koscielny has asserted himself as the main man in Vermaelen’s absence and the main main to pair Vermaelen when he’s fit. Excellent season for the French Pole. And Vermaelen…oh right, already waxed present-tense nostalgic about the Belgian.
Midfield—This year was to be Wilshere’s year, until it wasn’t. Fortunately, Ramsey has put leg-break fears behind him and formed a good partnership with Arteta and Song. Arteta has provided goals and a cool head–he probably deserves his own standalone entry, in fact. One wonders how things could have been different if Arteta had played alongside Fabregas for the latter’s final seasons in the red and white. Although Frimpong and Coquelin did not really play a part in the “turnaround,” per se, they most definitely broke out this season and helped maintain focus during the dark months, helping hugely in the resurgence of the fall. Without those points then, there wouldn’t be the points total of now.
Think about this team, plus players like Podolski, Vertoengen, a creative midfielder/playmaker and no exits aside from those we want (Bendtner, Denilson, Almunia, possibly Vela and Djourou). Wilshere returns eventually. Santos re-enters the matrix soon. Jenkinson looked promising until his injury troubles. Presumably Diaby has a role to play yet. Coquelin, Frimpong, Yennaris and Miquel all made the most of their first-team shots and should be seeing plenty more playing time in the season ahead. (Get well soon, Frimpster and Le Coq.)
The final 9 games will decide much with regard to our pulling power with newcomers and our retention rate with the best performers we have currently.
May all the games that remain be filled with Arsenalian brilliance. And good day to you.
League games that remain this season:
Mar 24 Arsenal v Aston Villa
Mar 31 Queens Park Rangers v Arsenal
Apr 8 Arsenal v Manchester City
Apr 11 Wolverhampton Wanderers v Arsenal
Apr 16 Arsenal v Wigan Athletic
Apr 21 Arsenal v Chelsea
Apr 28 Stoke City v Arsenal
May 5 Arsenal v Norwich City
May 13 West Bromwich Albion v Arsenal
Arsenal travels to West London for the early match on Saturday to face off against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (7:30AM EST on ESPN2). It’s the sternest test since the desperately needed improvement of late, and the result will reveal whether the team has finally shaken the pernicious monkey off its back or if the Red and Whites really are a defensive shambles with only one dependable goalscorer.
It’s not a make-or-break match, per se, but the result carries more weight than simply three points. Arsenal has finally cobbled together a string of results in the league, in Europe and most recently in the Carling Cup, but all that could soon come to a screeching halt. Most people are expecting to hear that ear-splitting screech. However, if Arsenal can emerge with a draw or perhaps lose but put in a convincing performance, things really could be looking up. A win would cause half of North London to flip out, undoubtedly, but at some point one needs to be realistic.
To start with the positives, Arsenal top their Champions League group at the midway point and have only Olympiakos away, with Dortmund and Marseille set to travel to the Emirates, where Arsenal has racked up the majority of its wins. The team has clawed its way to seventh place after an abysmal start to the season (1-1-3). Robin van Persie is still far and away to go-to man for goals, but Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey and Andrey Arshavin have started scoring a few themselves, in addition to some excellent assists. Gervinho played an outstanding match against Stoke, involved in all three goals, scoring the first off an incredible chip from Ramsey. Meanwhile, many positives emerged in the 2-1 Carling Cup win over Bolton on Tuesday. Of which more right now.
For starters, Thomas Vermaelen captained the side on his long-awaited return. Steely-eyed and solid as ever, he commanded his area as if he never left. His recovery means that all the center halves are again fit. It’s surreal to even write that. As any statistician knows, the last time Arsenal had all its center halves fit is a month and year that does not translate in modern alphanumerics. Heady times. Even backup center halves Ignasi Miquel and Sébastien Squillaci are fit (both of whom played Tuesday, and Squillaci wasn’t even half bad for once).
After the match, news broke that Vermaelen may have suffered a calf injury. Cue Bacary Sagna leg-break despair. But then he declared himself fit again (rejoice!), which could put him in the frame for Chelsea. One would forecast the bench as his most likely destination, with the Mertesacker-Koscielny axis in good working order at present, and rested. But Vermaelen is our best defender, and Chelsea away is when you’d like to have your best defenders. It would also free up Laurent Koscielny for right back. Wenger definitely has some decisions to make.
(When it comes to the Champions League, I can’t help but root for any English team, unless that team is playing against Arsenal… How the Gunners beat Barcelona is not for me to decide, for I’m certainly not an analyst. My best answer is that Arsenal beat Barca the same way Arsenal can be beaten: Solid defending and goalkeeping, making chances count, waiting for a couple sloppy passes and scoring on the break.
As for the Spurs, I love to watch them. I’m an American Arsenal fan, so the Gunners/Spurs rivalry is a non-issue. Yeah, I get excited when they play each other, I get a bit worked up, but I watch my soccer on the t.v., not the telly. My villains are United and Chelsea, unless they’re playing in the Champions League, not against Arsenal!)
Dear North London:
Thank you for last week. Thank you for entertaining us in such dramatic fashion. Thank you for showing us the spirit of “The Underdog”.
Thank you for showing us that the EPL elite is comprised of much more than Reds and Blues. Thank you for showing us that English teams might rebound from last year and once again hold their own in Europe, against the most famous and well-established of teams.
Thank you for providing international ingredients, for Russia, Africa, France, Eastern Europe, and two vans from Holland. Thank you for a home-grown finishing dose (Lennon/Crouch), and for unfinished future droplets (Walcott/Wilshire).
Thank you for showing us that it just might be preferable to train and play under clouds and rain, rather than under models and breezy coasts.
Thank you for your fiery managers and coaches.
Thank you, beanpole and diminutive one, for your last minute heroics.
Thank you, North London, not from a supporter but from a fan.
Thank you, North London, for a rivalry I can’t truly understand.
Thank you for scoring on the break.
Good luck, North London…
The much-hyped Chelsea-Liverpool game Sunday of course didn’t live up to the hype (a surprising but desultory 1-0 victory for Liverpool)–but there was a bunch of exciting action over the weekend. Let’s start with Arsenal visiting Newcastle.
The Gunners scored 3 goals in the first ten minutes against Newcastle (Walcott 1′, Djourou 3′, van Persie 10′), added a 4th in the 26th minute (RVP again), and held that 4-0 lead until the 68th minute–and subsequently collapsed to end the game 4-4. Newcastle was sparked by not one but two penalties in their favor, both converted by Joey Barton–who also helped Newcastle gain a man-advantage for nearly the entire second half.
Sean called it back in August: Joey Barton is a cheap thug. Barton’s vicious tackle on Abou Diaby early in the 2nd half led the Ivorian Frenchman to retaliate with a throwdown, which of course got Diaby a straight red (Diaby was filling in for an injured Alex Song).
That said, Newcastle’s 4th goal was especially impressive–a volley by 24-year-old Ivorian midfielder Cheik Tioté in the 87th minute. Tioté arrived in Newcastle this summer after winning the Eredivisie title with FC Twente and playing for the Ivory Coast in the World Cup (see the Guardian’s Saturday interview from last October: “I miss Africa but Newcastle is perfect for me“.
As usual, we solicited the thoughts of our favorite Gunners fans in the Rockies:
The Newcastle game might be a classic for the neutrals. Apparently no EPL team has ever surrendured a 4-0 lead. It was a lesson in sports-psychology. (I’ve been there, my own emotions led to the St. Xavier brawl! HA!)
Gunners: still young, emotional, and needing leadership. But they’re hardening their skin, and taking less and less shit from opponents. I hope for great things in the next 2-5 years…
I wasn’t that upset, I chuckled a few times as Arsenal folded. But they gained a point on Man Utd, and Abou Diaby did his best to put Joey Barton in his place. Pushing Barton’s head toward the pitch is worth a red and a point, eh?
In case you missed it, watch the highlights of Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over Leeds yesterday, in a FA Cup replay (following the 1-1 draw a couple weeks ago). All four goals are worth watching: the first goes from Chamakh to Arshavin to Nasri in 5′; then crackers by Sagna & Bradley Johnson which made the score 2-0 and then 2-1; and then finally late in the 2nd half, after Wenger was forced to bring on Fabregas and Robin van Persie, the latter scored with a header off a great cross by Bendtner (didn’t think we’d ever have occasion to write those last few words).
We’ve been having some discussions about Arsenal’s optimal starting lineup, sparked by this post by Coach Larry–in particular his inclusion of Jack Wilshere among his list of “Players who if they play too much kill their chances” (along with Denilson and Bendnter btw).
Now young Jack Wilshere has been among the most lauded players in the Premier League this season, and he has been in Wenger’s top XI all season, as one of the 2 holding midfielders alongside Alex Song in Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1.
The “3-1” part of the starting XI has been under discussion as well: Nasri and Fabregas are given; Arshavin (on the other wing opposite Nasri) and Chamakh (up front) rounded out the starting XI for the first couple months of the season, but with Arshavin losing form, Walcott coming on strong, and van Persie coming back from injury, the ideal front four has been part of the discussion too.
Larry’s argument re Wilshere:
My contention is he represents a non-ideal Arsenal formation. Song is a better tackler and reader of the game, Nasri, RVP, and Cesc all far superior in distribution and possession. I’d prefer to play Chamakh up top as he adds an extra dimension in the air others not named Bendtner can offer. Arsenal are so good at holding the ball, they just don’t need to have 2 ball winners in the center. I do like how Wilshere and Song work together, especially in their flexibility to cover one another, but ultimately, they’d be better served with more pure attack so they can turn their dominance into more goals. And, hey, you never know when Arshavin will return from his moon pod.
In sum: take Wilshere off and replace him with Chamakh as a striker up front, meaning Arsenal would be playing a 4-1-4-1 (RVP pulled back from his usual striker position into a 4-man midfield: van Persie and Fabregas in the center (which is attractive), and Nasri and either Walcott or Arshavin on the wings. More explanation from Larry: “It has the beauty of adding an actual shooter/scorer to the very top of their formation [Chamakh], plus RVP should be able to find a couple of spaces underneath, so he can create some shooting lanes for himself, instead of having a defender right on his hip. And for when he gets injured, Nasri is more than capable of sliding inside.”
For reference, Arsenal’s starting lineup for this FA Cup match v Leeds was as follows is shown to the right (courtesy of ZonalMarking–click thru on the image for their analysis of the match). Wenger was forced to bring on van Persie and Fabregas for Chamakh and Arshavin in the 2nd half
A must-win game for both sides today with the teams jockeying tentatively for the first half hour. Neither side could settle into rhythm, and ten minutes on it looked that Arsenal were bending, a team on the brink of panic, clearing poorly and unable to hold the ball in attack. Chelsea were countering quickly, and though they held less possession it seemed like Drogba might make something happen all on his own.
It would have to be on his own too, as the Ivorian was isolated from a lagging Frank Lampard (who was not quite in sync with the team on his first game back from injury), while Malouda and Kalou were ineffectual up the wings. Even Cole, who always wants to remind the Gooners of what they’re missing, was held in check by a not-so-baby-faced-anymore Sagna. But the Blues’ defense was solid in the first third of the game, retracting into a shell and forcing Wegner’s men to pass the ball around the periphery, or neatly stepping into long passes and turning the ball upfield through the Bison.
Then Arsenal turned the tables. Walcott, who had been the most nervous of a visibly nervous Arsenal side, got a few lucky bounces to start the twist, and when Ashley Cole picked up a yellow and had to play more cautiously, Theo appropriately took the game to him. On the left Nasri was at work holding possession, making small passes and pushing the point, and up top there was Van Persie, back in a starter’s role and causing a bit of a rift across the Cult Football intranet. While we agree on the match in nearly all ways, co-author Amy Kahmille and I don’t see eye to eye on Van Persie, then we chatted during rest of the match:
Amy: Those last few minutes of the first was the turn around for the Gunners, albeit without the help of the striker van Persie, who to me does nothing in most matches, this one being no different. I was happy to see him subbed out in the 75th minute but would have been happier to see him go sooner. If Drogba were in van Persie’s position, Arsenal would really have something up top. Instead it has someone who stands around offside, misses shots at close range, touches the ball maybe three times the entire game, doesn’t play defense even when he does get back behind the ball, and when he does check-to doesn’t demand the ball to make something actually happen, and most importantly, loves to foul!
Sean: Van Persie did miss that lofted pass that gently floated in front of his favored left foot a few minutes in, and that is exactly the kind of goal Drogba lives on, but I think he moved pretty well when he came to the ball if not while trying to split the center backs. He doesn’t have the physical presence of Chamakh, but his touch is so much better, and he’s really quick. He’s just not back up to speed after his injury – guess you could say that about players on both teams.