It’s Our Cup. How Much Do We Want to Keep It?

January 9, 2021
Hands off, it’s ours

They should really call it the AFC Cup, not the FA Cup.

Arsenal are the most successful team in the history of the competition. We have won it 14 times, including four times in the last seven years. It is “our” trophy more than any other in football’s pantheon.

Which all gives Mikel Arteta something of a conundrum today.

We have rediscovered our form in the last three matches thanks to a shift in formation, the introduction of some young players in key roles and the abandonment of certain senior pros who were not pulling their weight.

So does El Patron persist with that winning formula today and start Smith Rowe as a Number 10 and Saka wide right? Does the encouraging partnership of Holding and Mari get another outing at centre back? Do we play Lacazette down the middle again?

Or does the boss look at this competition as being not quite as important as the league games and bring back the likes of Pepe, Willian and Luiz to get them some game time?

Such is the nature of these things that I suspect he will go for a compromise approach, putting out partly a “cup team” but trying to do it in such a way as not to dent our momentum.

We don’t play again until Thursday night (home to Palace in the League), giving us a full five days to recover, so fatigue should not be an issue with selection.

Nevertheless, if El Patron decides to rest someone like Smith Rowe, it can easily be presented to the player as being a decision based on his importance (“I really want to keep you fresh and fit for these vital league games coming up”).

By the same token, in a long season we are bound to need to call on players like Willian, Pepe and Luiz at some point as a result of injuries, suspension or tiredness, so there is sense in keeping them fresh and motivated.

I have no doubt that Arteta will want to come out on top today and to win this competition overall. He won it as a player for Arsenal and again in his first half-season in charge as manager, the latter hugely cementing his position and helping protect him during the recent terrible run of form. And also giving us fans a joyful end to a difficult season, it should be pointed out.

He said in his press conference: “We are the holders, we have to defend that title. We know what it means to the club and the history that is related to the FA Cup. It’s a great competition to play in for us.”

What of our opposition? Steve Bruce seems like a decent bloke but his team have struggled to get into gear this year. Newcastle sit 15th in the Premier League (only four points behind us!) but they have shown some ability to lift themselves for cup games, reaching the quarter finals of the EFL Cup.

Premier League survival will be top priority for Bruce and Newcastle this year but a good cup run can lift spirits and improve league form, so they will be equally keen to do well today.

Through a combination of our recent resurgence, the fact the game is at The Emirates and the quality of the opposition we should prevail, but it won’t be handed to us on a plate. We need the same effort and application we saw against Chelsea and West Brom in particular.

As far as player availability goes, Partey and Gabriel were still being assessed as of yesterday (the former for his thigh injury, the latter for Covid). Everyone else seems to be available.

My guess at the line-up:

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Luiz – Tierney

Xhaka – Elneny

Pepe – Smith Rowe – Martinelli

Lacazette

My reasoning is that Martinelli deserves another start and the cup is an opportunity to rest Aubameyang without it being a case of “dropping the captain.” Much as I would like to see Saka start I fancy either Willian or Pepe will be given the right attacking position and I have plumped for the Ivorian.

I fancy Arteta will want to give Luiz some game time, so Mari will (unluckily) miss out. I don’t have a problem with Luiz starting. He was vital to us winning the trophy last year. We just have to hope he doesn’t have one of those ‘Dopey Daviiiid’ moments.

I suppose we could put Balogun or Eddie in the central striker role but I can’t see either of them being able to slot into it and instantly achieve what Lacazette has done, so I think we’ll persevere with the in-form Frenchman.

If Arteta decides to rest Smith Rowe for this one then the most appropriate replacement might well be Willian (gulp). If so, he really owes the fans a performance.

Over to you. What sort of team should we be putting out today?

RockyLives


Balogun likely to leave ?!?

January 8, 2021

Arteta: “The club wants to make a deal, the manager wants to make a deal, the player wants to stay and I’m not sure about the agent. We are negotiating with an agent, with a player that wants to stay at the club and we need to find an agreement. I’m telling you that we are doing everything we can to keep him here and hopefully from the other part they are doing the same and in the same interest, which is the player’s interest which is to stay at the football club and be successful with us.”

Well well well…Arteta is insinuating that Balogun’s agent may look to have Balogun join an another club. What a bummer that would be?

So what do you think? Will Edu convince Balogun to stay or will his agent have the last word?


Ready, Willian and Able

January 7, 2021
Willian the Conquered?

Take this with a pinch of salt if you prefer, but I have heard that Willian is fully aware of how unpopular he is with Arsenal fans, is greatly distressed by it and wants to win us over with better displays on the pitch.

It’s not exactly surprising that the ex-Chelsea forward is aware of the ire directed at him. Footballers have 24/7 access to social media and most of them dip into it to see what people are saying about them. They’re only human after all, even Harry Kane.

This story comes from a friend who had a tradesman in their home recently. The tradesman’s son is mates with one of the young players at Arsenal and hence the origin of the tale. As you can see, it’s fourth hand at best, so I am almost embarrassed passing it on here except that it made me step back and rethink my attitude towards Willian.

The ‘young player at Arsenal’ is alleged to have shared the information that Willian knows he has been performing below par and is eager to get back to his best. He has been upset by all the criticism but knows the only way to counter it is with better performances.

However, he also feels he has been somewhat unfairly singled out during a bad run in which the team as a whole was playing badly.

I wouldn’t say Willian was especially singled out during our abysmal run of results: there were plenty in the dock with him, including Xhaka, Aubameyang, Luiz, Elneny, Lacazette, Bellerin, Pepe and others. But of late the negative focus has been more on Willian perhaps.

First I should hold my hands up and admit that I have been slagging off the Brazilian something rotten in my match reports and general comments. I’ll make no apology for that – he has been terrible.

But this insight into his thinking (if true) gives the lie to some commonly used lines of criticism, such as “he doesn’t care” and “he’s just here for the money and an easy life.”

We sometimes forget how hard it is to get to the top in football. You need a hell of a lot of skill but that’s not enough. You also need a hard competitive edge and a strong personality. In short, you have to be a winner, you have to hate losing and you need to have a lot of pride (often accompanied by an oversized ego).

Does anyone really believe Willian arrived at Arsenal thinking: “Right, that’s a decent three year deal in my back pocket: I can put my feet up and glide into a very comfortable retirement without having to bust a gut too much.”?

I’m sure he was well pleased with the deal (it was clearly over-generous for a player of his age), but I also have no doubt he came to us intending to do well and win trophies.

We have seen other out-of-favour players go through a rehabilitation process with fans (recently including Laca, and over the past year including Xhaka, Luiz and even Mustafi) so I have no doubt there is a path back for Willian. However, it will be contingent on one thing and one thing only: how he does on the pitch.

We know he has talent (we saw him display plenty of it at the West London Oilers). But we need him to apply it on our behalf on a more consistent basis and we need to see a lot more effort, including on the defensive end. We fans will always forgive a player who is plainly busting a gut for the team.

He has worked his way down the pecking order since arriving in N5 and will need to work his way back up again, but he can – and should – be an important arrow in our quiver during the rest of the season.

Surely we can all agree that an in-form Willian would be an asset?

RockyLives


What about Draxler?

January 6, 2021

The French press has indicated that AFC is looking closely at Julian Draxler. The 27 years old PSG attacking midfielder has been playing second fiddle to Neymar, Mbappe, Di Maria and Sarabia in the last 2 years. Excelling in his first season, he slowly moved down the pecking order – injuries not helping his cause.

With PSG reportedly making a move for Eriksen, Draxler’s playing time is going to continue plumetting. Clearly a talented player that can easily play as a left or central attacking midfielder, his performances in Paris have been up and down. He will not cost much money (10 mln EUR max) and his salary is evaluated at 7 Million EUR/Year.

I believe he could be extremely good in a “Bergkamp-type” role and and as a 10. He is not a diva-type of player. He comes in with a wealth of international and European experience. A London move could tempt him although his native Germany is also calling for him, especially Leverkusen. There is a question mark on his ability to keep fit though…

So would Draxler come in and replace Ozil in our squad and help us achieve results but also help ESR and Willok grow? Is he worth the 10 Mln transfer fee and 7 Mln EUR/year salary?

Was denken sie uber Draxler? Ja oder Nein?

https://www.whoscored.com/Players/96449/History/Julian-Draxler


AFC Winter Clear-Out?

January 5, 2021

Arteta has been very clear about the fact we first need to see some players go before we see some players coming in during the Winter Transfer Window.

Kolasinac headed to Schalke on-loan and we wish him the best. He will basically leave us in the summer.

Saliba has joined Nice on-loan until the end of the year. Edu confirmed that Saliba will pursue his progression there and rejoin us. I am glad he will get some playing time. I would have been happier if he went to another EPL outfit but oh well…

So who should / is going to leave us next?

  • Sokratis’ days at AFC seem numbered. France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Scotland and even England are possible destitations.
  • Mustafi is reportedly on his way out and I would be ok with him leaving. Barcelona may be interested (odd if you ask me…) and Monaco as well as Koln…
  • Chambers seems likely to stay and so does AMN
  • There is talk about El Neny going back to Turkey but I do not think Arteta will entertain offers for El Neny
  • There are rumours about Edu/Arteta considering to loan out Willock, Nelsson and Nketiah. Not sure how I feel about them leaving.
  • Rumours also about Guendouzi being sold to Hertha Berlin as of this winter already?
  • Lucas Torreira may be called back from his loan to be sold to an Italian club too…
  • Any other players you would like to see out?


January Signing Will ‘Kill’ Smith Rowe

January 4, 2021
Don’t put Smith Rowe on Death Row

If you had asked me before the Chelsea game how important it was to sign a really good creative attacking player during the January window I would have said “vitally so.”

We were on a terrible run of results and, never mind not scoring, we weren’t even making chances. In some games the opposition goalie was so untroubled by our efforts that he could have set up a camp bed between the posts and had a 90 minute nap.

But then Emile Smith Rowe was brought into the team, we beat Chelsea with ease and won our next two games, with ESR playing a significant role in all three victories in, yes, a creative attacking position.

Once, in 2008, Arsene Wenger was asked about the possibility of new signings and said: “…we have done such a great job with the young players that you are concerned ‘Do we kill a young player or not by bringing another player in?'”

So where does that leave us in 2021? Do we sign a player like Isco or Hassem Aouar? And if we do, what does that do to the future career of young Emile? Do we risk “killing” him?

We have had plenty of false dawns with young ‘stars of the future’ at Arsenal, but Smith Rowe really does look to have what it takes to be a top player and is very highly regarded within the club.

If we bring in an established star it’s likely that ESR’s’ opportunities will be reduced to Europa League appearances and occasional Premier League cameos from the subs’ bench.

And then what? He won’t progress as quickly as he would with regular first team appearances and may quite possibly become disillusioned and start thinking about a move.

So my instinct – now – is to say we should not go in for a new Number 10 or central attacking midfielder in this window, although this course of action is also not without its problems.

Would it mean putting too much pressure on one young player to consistently deliver, right at the start of his senior career? What if he got a bad injury just after the window closed? In any case, wouldn’t it be good for him to have competition for his place?

As far as a potential injury scenario goes, we have other players who could (in theory) take up the No 10 role. The obvious one is Willian, but there has been nothing about his performances since he signed for Arsenal that makes you think he could do the job with anything like the energy and commitment of Smith Rowe. Saka could be tried there, but it would be a shame to remove him from the wide right attacking role where he is proving to be so productive.

So where does that leave us? With a tough call for the club and the manager.

If they buy a big name they will be accused of stifling the chances of a brilliant home grown talent; if they don’t and ESR gets injured or suffers a drop in form, they will be slaughtered for not having brought in cover.

I would take the risk, put my faith in ESR and keep my (financial) powder dry until the summer transfer window when new signings can be made in a more strategic way. It’s a risk, but one that could pay off big time. If Smith Rowe continues to progress, we might enter the summer window feeling that a new playmaker is no longer top of our priority list and that the money can be spent on improving us in other positions.

If we do decide to bring an extra face in this January, I hope it is a short term loan move for an experienced player who is not a guaranteed starter. In that regard, Isco is not a bad option, provided he doesn’t mind being second fiddle to Smith Rowe.

RockyLives


Goal Blizzard Buries Baggies: West Brom Report & Ratings

January 3, 2021
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

A hugely encouraging performance on a snowy night in the Midlands saw Arsenal come away with all three points, a clean sheet and four goals to the good.

With the important caveat that we were facing the leakiest defence in the Premier League, we should all just take a moment to enjoy a confident, dominant performance.

Two goals in the first half, two in the second and some excellent displays from individuals (with the young contingent shining again) saw us comfortably through what might have been a difficult away game. When you get to the player ratings you will see a very rare thing: a three-way tie for Man of the Match.

We know that Sam Allardyce has, in the past, frustrated Arsenal by getting committed, well-organised performances out of inferior players. He has only been in the West Brom job for two weeks but I thought his message would be starting to rub off on them and they would give us a tough challenge. Thankfully, the walrus magic is not happening yet.

Mikel Arteta stuck with some of the young players who have fuelled his team’s recent revival: Saka continued as right attacking midfielder and Smith Rowe took up the drifting sort-of No 10 role he occupied against Chelsea and Brighton.

Mari was preferred at CB despite Luiz being available: a pleasing example of El Patron showing that if you play well enough when you get your chance you can keep your place even when supposedly more senior players comes back from injury or suspension.

Laca was started as the central striker again (the position he filled so well against Chelsea and in the second half against Brighton), with Aubameyang as the wide left attacker (I assume Martinelli’s game time is being carefully managed after such a long lay-off, so he was on the bench).

We started the game on the front foot with Tierney causing all sorts of problems for Albion down our left and Saka looking dangerous every time he picked up the ball. Two of his crosses almost found Auba at the back post.

Kieran Tierney opened the scoring with a brilliant solo effort on 23 minutes, “giving the eyes” to the West Brom defender as if he was going to cut inside, then pushing the ball outside him and going the long way round to collect it. The defender was just about able to recover before KT turned him inside out again, sliced into the box and curled home a beauty into the far post. “Kieran Thierrny” as someone said in the comments last night.

The goal was no more than we deserved for our pressure, movement and attacking intent and four minutes later we had another – and this one was pure Wengerball. We moved the ball from side to side probing for an opening. Bellerin made the telling forward pass to Smith Rowe, who pulled off a Bergkamp-like turn and immediately slipped an acute-angle pass to Saka, who pinged it straight to Lacazette. Laca slid a first time pass into the box, right into the stride of Smith Rowe, who squared for Saka to tap into an empty net.

The speed of thought and movement was delicious. It shows what can be achieved with one-touch passing and fast give-and-go football (it was crucial to the goal that both ESR and Saka went like the clappers the moment they had laid off the ball).

We had more opportunities before half time but went into the break comfortably on top as the weather conditions worsened.

The pitch was noticeably whiter when we came out for the second half and I’m sure that played a part in a sloppy period of play for the next 15 minutes or so. The West Brom players had no doubt been given a going over by Allardyce and they upped their game. But players from both teams were slipping and the ball was holding up in the thick slush, making it risky to play across the back.

West Brom got the ball in the net, but the goal was correctly ruled out for an earlier offside (I noticed how well our defence had stepped up as a unit to put the Baggies striker off).

On the hour mark we got our third. The rejuvenated Lacazette started the move, driving through the middle of the park before laying off to Saka out right. Saka got into the box and put in yet another lethal cross. The West Brom central defender, panicked by the presence of Aubameyang, sliced his clearance off the post. It came out to Smith Rowe who belted in a powerful shot well save by the ‘keeper, only for Laca to tuck away the rebound.

Four minutes later after another great run and cross from Tierney, Lacazette had his second and Arsenal’s fourth. It was Laca’s fifth goal in four games.

There were opportunities for more goals later on, particularly as the snow eased off and the conditions improved, but in the end we settled for 4-0.

West Brom had very few chances, a result of their own struggles and our resolute defending. Leno had to make two good stops (one early and one late) but otherwise was not troubled. The early one resulted from Xhaka doing one of those ridiculous toddler tumbles where he waits for the slightest contact in his back before toppling forward like a chimney being demolished. The ref rightly ignored this nonsense and West Brom almost scored. Cut it out Granit – I know it has worked in the past to win us cheap free kicks, but referees are wise to it (and you). It was a shame because apart from that he had a really good (if unspectacular) game.

We are now three points behind Chelsea in sixth with more winnable league games coming up: after we play Newcastle in the FA Cup next weekend we then have Palace and Newcastle again in quick succession.

It’s early days for our recovery and the memory of that truly dismal run is still fresh in all our heads, but we do seem to have turned some kind of a corner with the introduction of the energetic young players and the shift in formation to what some call a 4-3-3 and what I call a 4-2-3-1.

The excitement among the players seemed positive (I loved the way Luiz was way off the bench to hug Saka after his goal) and there are grounds for more optimism than we have had since last season’s FA Cup win.

Player Ratings

Leno – 7

Not that busy, but was faultless when called on. His handling in difficult conditions was excellent.

Bellerin – 6.5

Picked up a yellow early on and was substituted on 54 minutes. He was involved in Saka’s goal and made a number of good forward runs, but also was a little sloppy in possession once or twice.

Holding – 8

He was really dominant at the back and dealt with everything that came his way. His passing out has improved a lot and he seems very comfortable with playing out from the back.

Mari – 7

I like the big Spaniard. He never looks flustered and defends well. He even sprayed a couple of long David Luiz-type passes.

Tierney – 9 (Joint MoTM)

Many have said that our wee Braveheart is a future Arsenal captain. Whatever ‘ingredient X’ is, he has it in spades: skill, energy, strength, attitude. What a great young player.

Ceballos – 7

Some really good moments from Dani, although there was also some loose passing at times (at least most of his wayward passes were ambitious, forward-looking ones that he overhit). Along with Xhaka he formed a reliable central midfield partnership, keeping the ball flowing from side to side and out to our dangerous flanks.

Xhaka – 7

An understated performance but one that should not be overlooked. He did simple things well all night long and that is not to be sniffed at.

Smith Rowe – 8.5

His play for the Saka goal reminded me of Bergkamp. I can give no higher praise than that. He continues to look like he should be an automatic starter except when needing a rest.

Saka – 9 (Joint MoTM)

The English language is going to have to come up with some new superlatives for this young man. Most of all I love his fearlessness. He plays on the front foot and expects things to come off. He is on course to be a world superstar.

Lacazette – 9 (Joint MoTM)

Laca’s recent performances are a lesson to all of us who are tempted to write off players when they’re going through a bad patch. Five minutes ago the Frenchman was “dead wood” who should be offloaded in January. Now he’s back to being a vital part of our attacking threat. The difference, of course, is that we have shifted to a new formation with a Number 10 (ESR) which allows him to have players much closer to him as the lone striker. The previous system left him isolated and having to try to hold up the ball and hang on to it, which is just not his game. In short, formation and team selection can have a huge impact on whether a player seems great or rubbish – it’s not always the player’s fault. Laca gets joint MoTM not just for his two goals, but for his all-round effort and involvement.

Aubameyang – 7

See above. Auba is taking a lot of criticism right now, but we have not been playing in a way that best suits his game. However, last night he showed more effort and determination and was very unlucky not to be on the scoresheet. He was inches away from two Saka crosses and had other chances that were saved or blocked. Like Laca, it will come good for Auba soon.

Subs

Maitland-Niles – 6.5

Ainsley was a little shaky when he came on, but still managed to contribute reasonably well. He needs more regular game time.

Willian – 6.5

I have been giving him a bit of a hard time lately. Last night he did a couple of really useless things (giving the ball away too softly) but he also had a couple of very nice moments. He’s going to have to work his way back into first team consideration with excellent outings in fringe games or as a sub. In that regard, this appearance was OK and no more.

Willock – 6.5

Joe got 16 minutes and was energetic.

RockyLIves


He is the Walrus: West Brom Pre-match and Predicted Line-up.

January 2, 2021
Allardyce giving a team talk in the home dressing room

Temperatures have plunged, snow has fallen and ice clings to the nation’s trees and rooftops; and somewhere in the Midlands, squatting on an ice floe, a blubbery, jowly creature is licking its flabby lips. Fat Sam the Walrus Man is waiting for us.

Tonight’s opponents, West Bromwich Albion, may be rooted near the bottom of the table but their new manager loves nothing more than putting one over on the Arsenal.

Sam Allardyce took over from Slaven Bilic on December 16th. In his three games in charge, Albion have taken one point, scored one goal and conceded nine.

Overall this season they have conceded more goals (35) than any other Premier League team. So we have a team that can’t score (us) against a team that can’t stop conceding (them): what you might call a resistible force meeting a movable object.

Anyway, don’t let West Brom’s woes lull you into a false sense of security.

For a start, the single point they earned under their new boss was away at the champions, Liverpool. It suggests Allardyce has lost none of his skill for getting a team of lumpen journeymen to perform well against much better opposition (while losing to teams more on their level).

Whether these days we count as ‘much better opposition’ than West Brom or ‘more on their level’ I shall leave up to you.

But I reckon this will be a tough battle for the boys in red and white, with Allardyce in his time-honoured Jurassic fashion sending out his players to ‘get about’ Arsenal. You can just hear him in the dressing room, telling the Baggies’ players that Arsenal a bunch of fancy-dan southern softies who don’t like it up ’em. “Let them know you’re there,” he’ll be saying, “get stuck in.”

Our players will need to win some physical battles before they can win the tactical ones.

Nevertheless, we have sufficient quality to come away with all three points provided that Mikel Arteta is prepared to learn the lessons of the last two games (against Brighton and Chelsea). In those matches we switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation and gave some of our exciting young players their head. It worked and we need to stick with it at West Brom.

This is the sort of game we have to be winning if we are going to salvage any kind of respectability this season. We know that players like Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli are up for the fight, even away in the Midlands on a freezing early January evening. Can we say the same about some of the more senior players?

My heart sank when I saw that Willian is available to play tonight after missing the last couple of matches because of “illness”. Surely El Patron will not start the hopelessly out-of-form Brazilian? Right? Please tell me I’m right.

Luiz is also back after his equally mysterious “illness” but it does not look as if Partey will be ready yet, although perhaps there will be room for him on the bench.

I don’t foresee too many changes, although I think Luiz will come in for Mari despite the latter’s decent performances. There is also a big question mark over our captain. Aubameyang was really poor against Brighton and we were a much better team when Lacazette took up the central attacking role. Laca’s skills are much better suited to it than Auba’s.

I suppose El Patron might consider starting Pepe to give one of the younger players a rest, but I hope not. We have a full week after tonight before our next game. When players are on a roll the best thing is to point them downhill and step out of the way.

I expect this line-up:

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Luiz – Tierney

Elneny – Xhaka

Saka – Smith Rowe – Martinelli

Lacazette

Here’s hoping that Elneny cuts out those ‘moments of madness’ that he’s been having in the last few games and that Xhaka brings the same level of performance that he did against the Chavs.

This game will probably feel more like the Brighton match than the Chelsea one, with West Brom keeping 11 men behind the ball for much of the game (that’s the reason I have gone with Laca ahead of Auba in the starting line-up). They will be looking to score from set pieces, so we will need our midfielders to avoid silly fouls around the penalty area.

With a bit of luck, skill and effort we could administer a proper thrashing like Leeds did to West Brom the other day (5-0), but this is far more likely to be a close game. I’m looking for 2-1 to the good guys.

Come on you Gunners.

RockyLives


Predictions for 2021 (Arsenal and Others)

January 1, 2021

Happy New Year to all who read, write for, comment in and visit Arsenal Arsenal. Whether you’re died-in-the-wool regulars or occasional drifters you’re all welcome here.

As we enter a new year it’s fun to imagine what it might hold in store, from a footballing perspective.

So here’s your chance to make your own predictions for Arsenal in 2021 and also for the big prizes in English and European football.

I’ll give you my forecasts, but please add your own in comments.

  1. Where do Arsenal finish in the league in 2020/21?
  2. How far do Arsenal get in the FA Cup?
  3. How far do Arsenal get in the Europa League?
  4. Who ends up as Premier League champions?
  5. Who else will make the Top Four?
  6. Who will win the Champions League?
  7. Who will win the FA Cup?
  8. Who will win the Europa League?

Here are my best guesses:

  1. Sixth
  2. Semi-finals
  3. Semi-finals
  4. Liverpool
  5. Man City, Aston Villa, Man Utd.
  6. Juventus
  7. Liverpool
  8. Villareal

RockyLives