3 points with style – what happened?

April 12, 2021

A strange feeling during and after the game…We managed the game well, we controlled the game and we scored some nice goals. Ceballos had a good game – it has been a long time coming! Xhaka didn’t disappoint. Partey bossed the midfield. Pepe was running back. Martinelli scored. Holding and Mari were solid and Leno didn’t do anything wrong…What happened?

We won the midfield battle and Ceba was key to this together with Saka and…Laca. Once you control the midfield, the game is easier and the passing flows. Martinelli and Pepe made themselves available through their runs and Laca by dropping back. It was quite a good display and the first goal was very nice to watch but I also liked the last one with that beautiful Partey turn and assist and Laca’s cool finish. The second one was not bad as Pepe got the ball back, drove it forward, forced a good save from the GK but not good enough to keep Martinelli off the score sheet.

Only issue with yesterday’s game is Saka’s injury. Other issue that nobody wants to dwell on is that the team does relatively well without Auba starting. I also agree with Arteta that Laca seems to be in a good place at the moment. I am hoping that he will score 2 goals vs Slavia this week with Pepe assisting at least one of them…

Leno – 6

Chambers – 6

Holding – 6

Mari – 6

Xhaka – 6

Partey – 7

Ceba – 8

Pepe – 7

Saka – 7

Martinelli – 7

Laca – 8

To AFC: More assured displays like this please!


A Chance for Some Fringe Players to Shine? Sheffield United Prematch & Predicted Line-Up

April 11, 2021
Azeez, please

The psychological flaw that runs through this Arsenal team was in evidence again on Thursday night when we blew our chances of going to Prague with a lead and a clean sheet.

That return leg now takes on huge dimensions. If we don’t qualify our season is over with weeks to go.

It should mean some of our best players will be rested (or at least not risked) as we take on bottom placed Sheffield United today.

Tierney is out for ‘four to six weeks’ and Luiz is also unavailable after undergoing a minor procedure, so they definitely won’t feature.

Odegaard and Smith Rowe are both being assessed for ankle injuries. In the circumstances it would be crazy if the club took a gamble with playing them today instead of wrapping them in cotton wool until Thursday. I think it would also be mad to play Saka today.

This is a game you would expect us to win, but with the current Arsenal team nothing can be taken for granted and I don’t think many fans will be feeling overoptimistic about our chances, even against a team that has managed only four wins in 30 games.

Perhaps Mikel Arteta will feel emboldened to give a chance to some younger and fringe players.

Many of his senior men, like Willian, Ceballos, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe have – to varying degrees – been letting him down badly all season.

We’re going to finish somewhere in mid table (outside of the European positions) whatever happens, so why not use our remaining league games to start planning for next season?

Martinelli, Azeez and Balogun could all be considered for starts and I would like to see Mat Ryan given a run out in goal instead of the increasingly shaky Bernd Leno.

I don’t really expect many changes, but supporters would cut the team a lot more slack if it had promising youngsters in it instead of the players who have disappointed on a regular basis.

I’m going to go with my hopes rather than my expectations and predict this starting line-up:

Ryan

Chambers – Holding – Mari – Cedric

Xhaka – Partey

Azeez

Nelson – Balogun – Martinelli

A convincing performance and a solid win would help steady nerves before the serious business of the Europa League in four days time.

RockyLives


Giving the stick to be beaten…

April 8, 2021

Leno – 6, a good outing today to be honest.
Bellerin – 5, his usual average self.
Holding – 6, solid at the back and interesting up front.
Gabriel – 6, solid.
Cedric – 4, a poor outing.
Xhaka – 6, solid.
Partey – 4, disappoing.
Saka – 6, a good showing but clearly needs more time.
ESR – 5, looking for rhythm but industrious.
Willian – 3, his usual poor self.
Laca – 5, interesting link-up, a great but missed opportunity.

Pepe – 6, decisive.
Auba – 6, decisive.
Martinelli – 5, clearly hungry.
El Neny – 5, more impact than Partey somehow.

Should have been a victory, ends in a draw…Lack of cutting edge up front and some nervy moments at the back especially with Cedric. Nothing won but nothing lost either. Disappointing. Slavia has not lost at home in a long long time. It is going to be an interesting game in Prague.


Will Injuries Bring Us Down? Prague Preview & Predicted Line-Up

April 8, 2021
Odegaard is a doubt for tonight

After last weekend’s capitulation to Liverpool, our Europa League quarter final (first leg) tonight has taken on even greater importance than it had previously.

We have long known that our Premier League campaign was headed nowhere and that the EL was our lifeline for success this season.

But the way we rolled over against ‘Pool without a semblance of fighting spirit or, apparently, any kind of plan, has raised questions (again) about the manager.

So Mikel Arteta needs a good performance tonight to help restore faith in his stewardship of our club as well as to maintain any interest in this season’s prizes. However, the age-old spectre of injury threatens to undermine his – and our – chances.

The draw was deemed to be kind to us, but Slavia Prague are not a pushover. They usually play a man-marking style and have pulled off good results against some big European teams in recent years (drawing with both Barcelona and Inter).

If we had a full squad I’d be feeling pretty confident but we may be missing at least three players who would be automatic starters: Luiz, Tierney and Odegaard. The first two are definitely out and Ode is doubtful because of an ankle injury.

According to the club’s casualty list Smith Rowe and Saka are both available but, given they are both coming back from injury, there must be a question mark over whether they will start. My preference would be to have them in the starting line-up and take them off early if we’re ahead.

Given our generally flaky nature these days (we can go from chumps to champs within the space of a single game) it is vital that we get a solid win tonight, ideally with a clean sheet. We don’t want to be away from home in the second leg without a decent buffer.

If Odegaard is out, the alternatives for the central attacking midfield position are Smith Rowe (my preference), Ceballos (please God no) and Willian (please, please God no). Lacazette could be considered for there (and might actually do quite well) but I don’t recall Arteta having used him that way previously.

I suppose a crazy-but-daring plan would be to pair Xhaka and Elneny at the base of midfield and put Partey in the CAM spot, but I can’t imagine Arteta being that radical.

Elsewhere we had an interesting discussion in yesterday’s post about the best CB pairing in the absence of Luiz, and there’s the conundrum of how we cover for Tierney’s absence: do we put the right-footed Cedric in there or play Saka in a role we know he has looked comfortable in before?

Up front I will be disappointed if Aubameyang and Lacazette are both selected. It should be one or the other down the middle.

Here’s my predicted line-up, working on the basis that Odegaard won’t start. If he is deemed fit enough then he goes straight in to the CAM role, Smith Rowe goes to the left and Willian to the bench.

Leno

Bellerin – Holding – Gabriel – Cedric

Xhaka – Partey

Saka – Smith Rowe – Willian

Aubameyang

And here’s the team I would send out if I were the boss:

Ryan

Bellerin – Chambers – Mari – Cedric

Xhaka – Partey

Saka – Smith Rowe – Martinelli

Lacazette

RockyLives


Luiz Out: What’s Our Best Centre Back Combo?

April 7, 2021
You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

David Luiz missed the Liverpool game after picking up an injury in training and, according to reports, may be doubtful for the rest of the season.

For all his frustrating faults (particularly his propensity to commit horrendous blunders on a regular basis) the Brazilian has ended up as probably our first choice CB.

When he’s not shooting himself and the team in the foot his defending can be excellent and his ability to play out from the back is better than any of our other central defenders (even if, for some fans, he slows us down too much).

So, with a Europa League quarter final looming and the need to get as many Premier League points as we can between now and the season’s end, who should be our first choice pair at centre back?

All the candidates have flaws.

Gabriel is probably the best defender of the bunch – big, strong and fast – but his passing is poor and he often looks panicked when receiving the ball from the goalkeeper while the opposition forwards are pressing.

His passing deficiencies are less obvious when he is playing alongside Luiz because the elder Brazilian takes most of the responsibility for playing out.

Holding has had reasonably solid spells during this season but is also prone to failings of concentration (witness allowing Raheem Sterling to score from an unchallenged header in the opening minutes against Manchester City). Like Gabriel he also appears uncomfortable when on the receiving end of Leno’s ‘hand grenade’ passes.

Mari has generally done OK in his appearances, but we still have not seen a huge amount of him so it’s hard to make a fully informed judgement. He has looked a little bit happier in possession than either Holding or Gabriel.

Chambers has not been used as a central defender by Arteta for a very long time. El Patron seems to prefer playing him at right back, where he did well against West Ham but, like the rest of the team, struggled against Liverpool. However, as a player who spent a season at Fulham in the defensive midfielder role (and was the fans’ player of the season), his abilities with the ball on the ground are pretty good.

On the basis of the above I would say our best ‘footballing’ CB is Chambers and our best ‘defensive’ CB is Gabriel, so I would be tempted to go with that pair.

However, if we are right to believe that Arteta has little or no faith in Chambers as a central defender, then the choice becomes tougher.

Holding and Gabriel is the more obvious one, but then we have two CBs who don’t like the ball at their feet and who will invariably spend the game trying not to catch Leno’s eye in case he puts them in trouble with another badly-chosen pass.

We could go with Gabriel (best defender) and Mari (a better ‘footballer’ than Holding), but then we have two left footed CBs, which does not seem like a good idea.

Or we go with Holding (decent defender) and Mari (decent footballer), which means we’re leaving out our best individual defender.

It’s a conundrum. What do you think?

RockyLives


Conspiracy Theory: Forwards turned against Arteta?

April 5, 2021
Arsenal pair Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe are slammed by Rio  Ferdinand | Daily Mail Online

“We don’t know what goes on behind the scenes at Arsenal, but I have to say there’s a few of those players in the front part of the pitch who looked like a little mafia against Liverpool. It looked like a group of players who weren’t comfortable, like there was a disconnect between them and the manager. The manager looked like he’d had enough of them. He had that glazed-eye look. It’s instinct, but we’ve been around football for long enough to know when a group of players are disinterested.” Gary Neville. “Neville suspects the perceived disconnect may be related to Arteta’s decision to drop Aubameyang for the north London derby last month after the Arsenal captain reported late on the morning of the game” (skysports.com)

So do you believe that Auba and his acolytes (Pepe, Laca primarily) actually tried to basically show Arteta that they are not happy with him and his tactics? I think that Neville may be reading too far into the abysmal display against LFC. That said, you can’t totally discard his reading of the game as he has been in the game for so long and knows about player-managers’ dynamics…

If Neville were right, we would have another “Ozil saga” in our hand with Auba as the key actor and the Board would have to make some tough choices in terms of moving Auba, Pepe, Laca to back Arteta or to back the players against Arteta. I think Arteta will be backed by the board but let us see…

Anyways – do you think that the situation is as bad as Neville thinks it is? Is there a real disconnect between the forward players and the coach?


Leading and Communicating – Does AFC have a gap in that competency?

April 5, 2021

“At all levels, effectiveness in this area is about showing our pride and passion for service,
communicating purpose and direction with clarity, integrity, and enthusiasm. It’s about championing
difference and external experience, and supporting principles of fairness of opportunity for all. For
leaders, it is about being visible, establishing a strong direction and persuasive future vision;
managing and engaging with people in a straightforward, truthful, and candid way.” (Extracted from: UK Civil Service – Competency Framework – 2012 – 2017- Civil_Service_Competency_Framework.pdf (publishing.service.gov.uk)

I think that at this stage, the only person that is showing any proficiency in this area is Arteta but then again, he is probably struggling in other areas as the team he is managing is inconsistent in performance and not delivering results or creating value for money…

I am more worried about the pitch though…There are different types of leaders:

  • the quiet ones that lead by example such as Tierney and maybe Odegaard or Saka too. But then, we would benefit from hearing them being louder on the pitch. Make their presence felt to their teammates and opponent so maybe it would be good to unleash them and let them speak up too…
  • The louder and passionate ones but whose performance do not always match their loud mouth like Leno, Luiz and Xhaka for example.
  • …I can go on and on and on..

The point is that we want a few players – one on every line (GK, Defense, Central Mid, Forward line) – that does not only lead by example by being a steady performer but is also not afraid of speaking up.

I cannot see Leno improve and would love to see him go and replaced by a good GK that is not afraid to speak up.

For all his talk, Luiz is just too inconsistent. Holding is still not ready to be the backline boss, Bellerin can’t be that boss either and Gabriel would also need at least another year to hold that role. Can Mari be the one? Maybe…But I think, we just need Tierney to just assume that role. He is clearly captain material.

Xhaka tried but his performances and temper got the best out of him so he can’t be it. I am hoping that Partey will be our leader in midfield as of next year. Otherwise, we ll have to ask ESR to take on that role…

Up front, I think that Auba tried but he is not doing great, is he? Laca could play that role but he is not an automatic starter so let us just for Saka. His understanding of the game is great and he has been playing well since he came into the team. Martinelli also is a fearless and gives his best every time he comes on the pitch.

So let us give power to our promising young players: Tierney, Partey or ESR and Saka and for God’s sake, let us get rid of Leno. What a mistake to have chosen him over Martinez!

Also someone made a point about Guendouzi yesterday. Like him or not like him – the guy has got personality and skills. Can he now channel this and be a good player for us? The jury is out…

So when we are recruiting, we want players with personality and I think we need to look into the EPL for these types of players. Players like Mings, Grealish and Ward-Prowse would be great for example. They don’t hide. If we are going outside the EPL, take players that are not only promising but also demonstrate leadership qualities and are proven leaders and communicators. You want 11 warriors great, we also need at least 4 leaders on the pitch including a captain that brings the team together and can motivate and lead the group…


Lame, Tame – Who’s to Blame? Liverpool Report & Ratings

April 4, 2021
Poor all round

What a disappointing return to Arsenal football action that was.

In simple terms we didn’t turn up against Liverpool last night and the 0-3 scoreline was flattering to us.

Last season we would have put that down to ‘Pool being an exceptionally good team, but this time round they were playing us with some significant injury absences and coming off a run of six defeats in eight games.

I wouldn’t say they were there for the taking, but there were certainly enough questions about their state of mind that we had the opportunity to unsettle them.

Instead we laid out a red carpet for the visitors and did not challenge them in any area of the pitch. We got the result we deserved and many are now questioning Mikel Arteta.

Let’s start with team selection. Quite a few of our regular starters were ruled out before the game: Smith Rowe and Saka were still recovering from strains; Xhaka was sick and Luiz was injured in training and may well be out for the rest of the season. All four of those players might have made a difference yesterday.

Chambers was given another game at RB as reward for his good showing against West Ham and Holding was recalled for the first time since getting out jumped by Raheem Sterling against Manchester City.

Ceballos took Xhaka’s place in central mid, with Pepe and Aubameyang on the wings and Lacazette as central striker, despite the fact that the Laca-Auba combo seldom works these days.

In the first half our passing was sloppy and inaccurate, we lost almost all of the 50/50s and we seemed to have no obvious plan (at least not that these eyes could identify).

The only upside as we went into the half time break still on level terms was that Liverpool, despite having most of the possession and dominating the game, had not really threatened our goal apart from with a couple of long range shots.

We also lost Kieran Tierney to injury just before the break – hopefully it’s not serious, since we have very little cover at left back.

However, the portents were ominous and it did not take long after the game resumed for ‘Pool to turn their dominance into goals.

Substitute Jota got the opener, finding space between two taller defenders (Chambers and Holding) to head home from close range after a good cross from Alexander-Arnold. I’m not a defence coach and maybe it was just really good play by the two Liverpool players, but Holding seemed completely oblivious to Jota’s presence and Chambers was unable to get close enough to the attacker to put him off. There appeared to be a breakdown in communication between the two Englishmen.

A few minutes later Mo Salah rode an ineffective challenge from Gabriel and slotted home through Leno’s legs. Jota got a third in the 82nd minute of what had now become a training match for Liverpool.

As we trooped off at full time the only sensible response was “thank God it wasn’t five or six”, which it easily could have been.

Arteta was brutally honest about the performance: “First of all, I apologise to our supporters for the display and the show that we saw today that I am very, very disappointed about. When you don’t do the basics right against a team like Liverpool, you don’t have any chance even to compete in the game, which is exactly what happened.

It’s unacceptable. At that level it’s unacceptable. To not be at 100% is unacceptable to our people and for a lot of work that we put in so what happened today is nowhere near what we want to do.”

Given that the whole team seemed off the boil, perhaps having different players available would have made no difference; maybe it was just a post-Interlull hangover. But surely Smith Rowe and Saka would have brought more threat to the champions than the ineffective Pepe and the invisible Aubameyang?

And the regular detractors of Xhaka and Luiz may want to ponder how important their roles are to the way we play: Ceballos struggled greatly and the team as a whole was less polished at bringing the ball out from the back than it has been all season.

So what does this mean about Mikel Arteta?

Not a lot. We know this team has deep-rooted problems and he was without some of his best assets yesterday. The lack of fight was alarming, but it happens. I suspect he is working through a process of establishing who can contribute to doing better next season and who can’t, and that outing will have helped make up his mind about certain players.

Our league campaign was already done and dusted and the focus now switches to what we can do in the Europa League, where a potential lifeline awaits.

However, one thing I would have liked Arteta to consider when faced with the sudden bout of injuries and illness before yesterday’s game was how he responded to a similar challenge earlier this season. Facing Chelsea and with several senior players ruled out through Covid, El Patron gambled on youth and it paid off handsomely.

Yesterday, instead of falling back on the likes of Ceballos, Pepe and Aubameyang, what might have happened if he had given some young players a chance? Perhaps starting Martinelli, Nketiah, Nelson and Azeez would have produced the same result – but would it have produced the same lacklustre performance?

Player Ratings

Leno – 5

He made a few good stops when the game was already lost, but – as Rasp pointed out in comments – you could see his defenders doing their best not to catch his eye in case he gave them one of his suicide passes. At least he kicked long more often than usual, but with no ‘out ball’ it simply meant giving possession to Liverpool every time. The German is having a poor second half of the season.

Chambers 5

Our defence had way too much to do in this game. Calum did some good defending at times but was seldom able to get forward the way he had against West Ham.

Gabriel 5

I love his defending (although he got done by Salah for Liverpool’s second) but his passing is atrocious. He works when Luiz is playing because he simply gives the ball to his fellow Brazilian, but he lost possession constantly last night.

Holding 5

Defended quite well in the first half. Did not seem to be sufficiently aware of the danger for Liverpool’s opener. Hard to judge overall given how poor the team’s play was generally.

Tierney 5

Didn’t have much chance to shine before going off injured.

Partey 6

Had good moments, particularly in the first half, but with the players around him underperforming he was on his own in trying to get some control in midfield.

Ceballos 4

I feel sorry for Dani. He played a big part in our FA Cup win last summer but now seems to be going backwards. He takes too long on the ball and you always think he’s about to lose possession in a dangerous area as he has done too many times this season. There’s really not a place for him moving forward.

Pepe 4

Barely got a look in and seemed incapable of linking up with either the midfielders, his RB or Lacazette. He also lost every physical challenge he went in for. A £7.2 million performance, not £72 million.

Aubameyang 3

Might as well not have played. He should not be an automatic starter when others are fit and ought to lose the armband, although at this stage of the season I wouldn’t blame Arteta for waiting until the summer break before picking a real captain.

Odegaard 5

Never got into the game. Perhaps was our best option for getting some control to break up the waves of Liverpool possession and pressure, but was unable to do so.

Lacazette 5

Worked hard but the ball never reached him in an attacking context.

SUBS

Cedric 5

No howlers, but couldn’t do anything to swing the game our way.

Elneny 5

Was better than Ceballos, though that’s not saying much.

Martinelli 6

Within a minute of starting he had already threatened Liverpool’s goal more than Aubameyang had in the previous hour and a quarter. The game shape was against us by then so there wasn’t much he could do, but it was good to see him get a run.

RockyLives


Too Tough to Call: Liverpool Prematch & Predicted Line-up.

April 3, 2021
Rejoice, the real football drought is almost over

Real football is back at last and, from an Arsenal perspective, it returns with a fascinating fixture that could prove to be a barometer for the fortunes of two teams.

Last season Liverpool were truly outstanding champions, romping home as easily as Usain Bolt in a sprint race against John Moss, Phil Dowd and Steve Bruce.

This season, however, their title defence has been poor. So poor in fact that they’re only two places and four points above us in the league table – and you don’t need me to tell you what a disappointing campaign we’ve had.

So they visit the Emirates for an 8pm kick-off tonight on the back of six defeats in their last eight games, but with the international break having given them the opportunity for a rethink and reset.

As for us, we went into the break after a very strange game against West Ham: a game in which we played as badly as we have all season for the first 35 minutes, then played arguably our best footy of the season for the remaining hour.

Taking all this into account, this is a really tough fixture to call. If we are at our best you’d fancy us to claim all three points against a demoralised ‘Pool. On the other hand we know that their players are capable of way more than they have been showing in recent performances. If they choose tonight to get their mojo back we could be in for a bumpy ride.

A few days ago, in a Post about how we would do in our remaining nine fixtures, I put this game down as a draw. However, no result would surprise me in this one: it could equally be a comfortable Arsenal win or we could get thrashed or it could be a tight game decided by the odd goal.

Certainly at kick-off time I shall be steeped in the optimism that I always feel before any game.

If we can pick up from where we left off in our fightback against West Ham (with great attacking movement, incisive passing and dynamic finishing) we could get a glimpse of a truly competitive Arsenal side that will trouble the top four next season.

However, if we trip over own feet again with stupid mistakes or carelessness and lack of concentration then it will be further evidence that our character flaws are not going away any time soon.

Team selection is also tricky to predict after a two-week round of internationals and with most of our key players having flown to various parts of the globe.

The African players have put in the most miles, which may place a question mark over whether Pepe, Partey, Aubameyang and Elneny will be considered fit and rested enough to start.

Of the Europeans, Tierney played a lot of minutes to very good effect for Scotland and Odegaard played almost two and a half games for Norway (the knock he’d picked up in the first of those fixtures fortunately turned out to be minor). Xhaka also contributed significantly to Switzerland’s cause and was outstanding, by all accounts.

As far as I know, none of our South Americans travelled.

Liverpool play a high line in defence, so the temptation will be to put out a speedy forward line against them and that may well mean Aubameyang down the middle.

If that’s the case I would like to see Saka and Smith Rowe played at right and left attacking midfield respectively, but there are fitness question marks over both players (they were both withdrawn from the England international squads – senior and under 21 – during the break).

I’m going to go with the optimistic outlook that they’ll be fit. If Smith Rowe is not available then I would love to see Martinelli on the left, but Mikel Arteta will almost certainly start with Willian (unfortunately). Meanwhile if Saka is out it should be a no-brainer to put Pepe in.

Arguably the Europa League game against Slavia Prague on Thursday evening is a more important fixture for us, but we’re at home in that game and have five full days to recover and prepare so it should not influence selection for tonight.

Here’s my predicted line-up:

Leno

Cedric – Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney

Xhaka – Partey

Saka – Odegaard – Smith Rowe

Aubameyang

Anyway, the main thing is that real football is back and life can return to being lived around the Arsenal fixture calendar.

After two weeks of uninteresting international games I feel like a man who was lost in the Sahara and has just been offered a glass of water. Let’s hope it tastes sweet at 10pm tonight.

RockyLives