So much depends upon Alexis

Jack Wilshere collected the Besiktas clearance at the top of the box.

The ball had bounced hard and Jack had to gather with his left foot, about waist high. He had time to settle and to find Özil standing in the D at the top of the box amid a crowd of defenders.

Jack slipped Özil the ball, and with the defender’s footsteps thudding in his ears, Özil immediately poked the ball through the rush of legs and into open space near where Jack had made his run.

It was a classic give and go play and for a second Jack looked like he was going to shoot with his right leg from close range. But before Jack could compose himself, Alexis Sanchez simply ran past Jack and kicked the ball into the back of the net, scoring his first Arsenal goal and announcing himself to the Arsenal faithful: a hungry, aggressive, scoring threat who wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way, not even a teammate.

Countless column inches have been written about the imminent return of Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin and the maybe start of new signing Mohamed Elneny. Few would disagree that Arsenal have missed Coquelin’s solidity in midfield. And as you can see from the chart below, the numbers bear out that perception:


Anywhere where you see blue indicates Arsenal shot dominance: Arsenal took more shots than their opponents. Anywhere you see that orangey red indicates opposition shot dominance.

On this chart, Arsenal dominated shots in all but 2 of the first 15 games: Chelsea and Tottenham. And in the last 8 games, Arsenal have been dominated 6 of 8.

And if we look at offensive output versus defensive solidity, we see that there has been a reversal at Arsenal — the Gunners are being dominated in the total shots department, not the other way round as we would normally expect to see from a top club:


Shots for and against tug on each other: pull one down and inevitably the other goes up. At least this is a hypothesis I have.

Even if I am wrong and getting Coquelin back in the team will bring the opposition’s shots per game back down to where it was before he got hurt, Arsenal’s offense is still below the opposition. That’s why, even though I am excited to see Coquelin’s name included in the likely players this weekend, getting Alexis back in the team is the real key.

Arsenal need more offense and they need it badly. They won’t beat Burnley tomorrow with defensive solidity alone. And going forward Arsenal need to get their offensive output up to at least somewhere near the start of the season if they are going to win the Premier League.

Alexis is the key. He has to get back that desire he showed for his first goal and take control of this Arsenal offense. He has to get Arsenal firing again.

So much depends upon our Chil-ean forward; glazed with sweat, waiting.. beside the white goal posts.



It’s the return of the bully: Joey Barton

Seven years ago Arsenal lost to Burnley 2-0 at their home stadium of Turf Moor. It was December 2008 and the two teams were drawn together for the League Cup. At the time, Wenger always played the kids in the cup and so the lineup for Arsenal that day was Fabianski, Hoyte, Silvestre, Ramsey, Gibbs, Rodgers (Lansbury 46), Randall (Bischoff 72), Merida, Wilshere (Simpson 63), Bendtner, and the ever chippy Carlos Vela.

Wenger was criticized for using young players in those League Cup ties, people claimed that Arsenal were “disrespecting the cup” as if the League Cup was some ancient tradition in football. But Wenger was right to play the kids because it gave them experience, even in, especially in a loss; Wenger was building the character of his young players.

Most of the names on that team sheet are gone. Some for good riddance, others because they were simply not good enough, and still others because they deserved to play football full time at another club. I still get a chuckle when I think of Amaury Bischoff coming on in the 72nd minute, Wenger’s last throw of the dice.

But some of the players are still with Arsenal and will be available for Saturday’s match against Burnley. Ramsey and Gibbs in particular will almost certainly start, and if Wilshere was healthy he would probably start as well.

Since that match in 2008, Aaron Ramsey has gone on to recover from a terrible double-leg break and played a pivotal part in back to back FA Cup trophies for the Gunners. Ramsey will remember that night at Turf Moot, the sting of defeat at the hands of the smaller club, and he will be up for this game.

And marking him in midfield will be Joey Barton. That’s right, wearing the number 13, and playing in the central midfield role for Burnley is the Donald Trump of modern football, Joey Barton.

What makes Barton so Trump-like is the combination of an insanely irritating personality, a weird popularity sparked by a good sense of showmanship, and it’s all wrapped neatly in a megalomaniacal package. The one thing that Trump and Barton like best in this world is Trump and Barton.

Watch any Trump speech and what you’ll notice is a starting lack of any specifics to the hundreds of ideas he has already said that he will make reality as president. He claims he will build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. How? Well, you just have to understand, he’s a great negotiator. He will just force Mexico to do it.

Joey Barton has the same kind of attitude. This summer he was released by QPR and no one came calling. Well, he claims there were a few. But when he was picked up by Burnley on a free he gave his first interview and stated unequivocally that Burnley were smart, for hiring Joey Barton.

It reiterates how fickle this industry is and how lazy people are. There’s a lot of lazy people out there. If you did your due diligence and were smart and a forward-thinking organisation – certainly in the Championship – I was a no-brainer really if you wanted to get promotion.

You see people spending money on players in that position, I am thinking: ‘Wow’. But Burnley are obviously smarter than the average bear when it comes to that, you can see that in the recruitment over recent years.

See, it’s simple, really, everyone else is lazy and stupid for not picking Joey Barton. He’s a no-brainer and Burnley are smarter than the average bear, boo boo.

I don’t know how smart it is to take Joey Barton in your team. He does have the ability to rile some players up, he got Arsenal’s Diaby and Gervinho sent off after they retaliated against him for his assaults on them. And if you watch that Gervinho video above, you will see what Joey Barton is all about: hauling Gervinho up by his lapels for a dive and then when Gervinho touches Barton’s face, taking a dive himself. You can also see Berton kicking people in that video and getting stamped on by Alex Song, again in retaliation. He does have a knack for riling up the Arsenal players.

Barton and Trump are both bullies. And when their bullying fails they both have a tendency to explode into ugly scenes.

Trump is currently in a non-stop twitter war with Fox News over them using Megyn Kelly in the latest debate. He doesn’t like  Kelly because she asked him a question he didn’t want to answer so he is boycotting the debate and sending out all kinds of crazy tweets about Fox News. I’ve never seen anything like it from a Presidential candidate. He is literally acting like a spoiled child.

And when his team needed him on the final day of the 2012 season Barton lost his rag in a similar fashion. QPR needed a result against Man City on the final day of the season, or for Stoke to beat Bolton. Not knowing the outcome of the Stoke-Bolton match and seemingly unable to bully the Man City players into submission, Barton lost his mind and elbowed Carlos Tevez. The moment he saw the red card he went even crazier, kicking Aguero from behind, trying to headbut Kompany, and going after Balotelli on the sidelines.

If Barton is looking forward to any match this season it’s this one. He loves to get under Arsenal’s skin and it works. Add to that history the fact that this is an FA Cup tie and that referees tend to let a lot more go in these matches and we could have a real ugly match on our hands.

And considering Joey Barton’s latest line from Burnley’s 4-1 win over Derby — 0 goals, 0 shots, 0 assists, 5 fouls, 0 cards — we can get a sense of exactly what Barton will be up to.


Ow, I've ruptured my ego!

Everything is awful, everyone should be dropped, and Elneny will save us

Drop it like it’s Walcott

One of the more pervasive theories is that Wenger should drop Theo Walcott when Alexis returns. The reaction after the Chelsea match on twitter was almost unanimous, he’d had the game that sealed the deal: Walcott’s career at Arsenal was done. I have a carefully groomed timeline on twitter and I was still inundated with Gooners saying things like “10 years at Arsenal, I hope that match was his testimonial”.

Fans seem evenly divided between starting Campbell, who they believe gives more to the team than Walcott, and playing some weird midfield duo so that Ramsey can be pushed back wide. But if I were to guess at Wenger’s thoughts I would look at what he did when he put Alexis on: he took off Campbell.

A major reason for why he kept Walcott on was because the Englishman is simply more of a goal threat than Campbell. I’m not saying Walcott is the greatest forward in the world but he is statistically a better dribbler, takes more shots, gets more shots on target, and has much better footspeed than Campbell.

By playing Walcott, Alexis and Giroud at the same time what you’re doing is making the opponent cover multiple options at the same time. You’ve got a guy who can break on corners (Walcott), a guy who can physically battle with the defenders (Giroud), and a guy who is just wildcattin’ all the time (Alexis). If Wenger plays Campbell, he gets better defending. If Wenger plays Theo he gets better attacking. And right now Arsenal need all the attacking they can get.

Help us Mo Elneny, you’re our only hope…

The other idea that people have is that Elneny and Coquelin will start together and then Ramsey will play on the right. Maybe, I guess. Ramsey on the right did sort of work sometimes at the start of the season — though if my memory serves there were also a lot of complaints by fans about Arsenal’s lack of counter attacking, speed, and width when Ramsey played “wide”.  I remember complaining about it, more than once.

Wenger is a huge gambler (as evidenced by his lack of transfer activity in the summer!) so perhaps we will see this virgin midfield duo deployed. But man, that seems like a huge risk to me because Elneny is such an unknown quantity. In fact I suspect that’s the reason so many people are attracted to this idea. Because it’s an unknown, there’s very little risk in mooting it. If it fails, you simply say “oh well, at least we tried” and if it succeeds “see, I’m right!”

The problem with Elneny-Coquelin is that Elneny would have to boss the midfield in possession. Coquelin isn’t a terrible passer but he worked well with Cazorla because Cazorla is a pass master. Is Elneny a pass master? Some people think so. I’ve never seen him play in the Premier League, while being kicked up and down the pitch by Joey Barton. But if he starts against Burnley, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. So, I guess we will see what Elneny is made of in that game.

But I’d be shocked if Wenger starts him and Coquelin at the same time.

Arsenal are out of the title race

Mer… this has been the most unpredictable season I have ever seen and Arsenal are just 3 points off the top of the table. I’m not ready to call it just yet.

Actually, I’d like to see the members of the press start to put some pressure on Tottenham. They are only 5 points off the top of the table and have been playing some of the most consistent football of any club this season. They need to be considered legitimate title contenders. Arsenal are just a little horse.

Tim you were wrong about squad depth

Arsenal lost three of their starting midfielders all in the same week: Alexis, Coquelin, and Cazorla. Each one of these players is unique in what they do. There is no team in the world that has two Alexises (Alexii?), two Coquelins (Coquelinii?), and two Cazorlas (Cazorlaii?).

Alexis is the attacking impetus of the team (and provides us with a pressing energy up high that sets the team up for better defending), Coquelin provided the defensive solidity in midfield, and Cazorla is simply the best midfielder in the world at breaking opposition pressure (and provided a second passing threat, forcing teams to cover more than one option and taking pressure off Ozil). Those three players were the spine of this Arsenal team and if you rip the spine out of any club — imagine Man City loses Aguero, Yaya, and Kompany for half the season or Leicester loses Mahrez, Kante, and Huth, their three best players — the level is going to drop dramatically.

So it was normal that Arsenal’s offense and defense dropped.

But look at what the backups did: they kept Arsenal out of the Europa League, beat Man City, forged another berth in the FA Cup, and despite some pretty bitter results, Arsenal are 3 points off the top of the table. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that is the very definition of squad depth. I feel like I’m the only Arsenal supporter who sees this and is happy that the team did as well as it did under the circumstances.

I’m not saying that I did a little victory dance when Arsenal lost to Chelsea or that in some other theoretical universe Wenger had bought three players who were “better than Flamini, Walcott, and Ramsey” (or whichever players you dislike) and Arsenal had run away with the League. But I don’t live in a theoretical universe, and if I did it wouldn’t be so boring that I would be worried about signing players who are only slightly better than Flamini, and so in the circumstances, the backups did pretty OK.

Regardless where you fall on that debate, Alexis is back, Coquelin is back, Welbeck is coming back, Wilshere is being thawed out of his carbonite stasis, and Elneny is going to save us.

Really, it’s all down to Elneny.