Arsenal 4-1 AZ Alkmaar; the Good, Bad, and Ugly

4-1, now that's a hiding!

Match Reports

Goodplaya: Arsenal pretty good at home right now.

Telegraph: For all the recriminations about Arsenal’s failure to win a trophy since 2005, Arsène Wenger should soon have a rather more favourable statistic to recite to his doubters. Barring a truly extraordinary sequence of results, last night’s resounding 4-1 victory over AZ Alkmaar has ensured that his team have now qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League in each of the past 10 seasons, a record that no other English club can match. Rafael Benítez, for one, will be casting an envious eye just now.

Match Video

The Arsenalist has started posting match videos as the match is happening. If you need to see the action and can’t get to a feed, try his site.

Quote of the day

Today we had still Bendtner, Walcott, offensive players who were not available. We had Denilson who did not start, Eduardo, Rosicky, that’s why I was always amazed when people told me ‘buy buy buy!’ But to do what with the players you buy? … and Carlos Vela I forget.

Arsene Wenger, describing Arsenal’s team depth, why he didn’t buy in the transfer market, and Carlos Vela.

The Good

It was, by all accounts, a superlative performance. Arsenal dominated possession at 55%, dominated the shots tally at 6-3, dominated the goals tally at 4-1, and when they lost the ball everyone, to a man, worked very hard to win it back.

At the back, Arsenal made two changes from the 3-0 drubbing of the Spuds on Saturday with little or no ill effect. Gibbs slotted in beautifully for the injured Clichy going forward with aplomb, bombing in crosses, and at the back his tackling seems in some ways stronger that Clichy’s. A strong performance and the perfect way to kick off his run of matches at left back.

Shielding the back four Alex Song would have been a revelation, if I hadn’t already watched him so closely all season. Last year the bag on Song was that he was too slow, lacked confidence with the ball, and that his passing was too often side to side. If there were any lingering doubts about Song, yesterday certainly put them to bed. He was very strong with the ball and seems to have discovered a dribbling confidence. With Song playing confidently as the lone central midfielder, Cesc and Diaby were able to get forward and help build the attack higher up the pitch. And when Gallas or Vermaelen go forward Song slots into the back line perfectly, every time. Song is not the same player that so many criticized last year, he’s strong in the tackle, he has a good burst of speed when needed, he has a nearly complete understanding of his position, and he can turn, dribble, and pass forward just as well as anyone on this Arsenal squad.

Song’s midfield partner and also oft maligned player, Diaby, must have benefited from Arsene Wenger’s pre-match pep talk because last night he was pretty damn good. My criticism of Diaby is that he has a tendency to hold the ball too long, doesn’t really have any defensive awareness, and the timing of his aerial game is poor. Yesterday he was very tidy with the ball, which showed in his season high 89% passing rate, and he tracked back pretty well, even making an excellent tackle outside the 18 yard box which dispossessed the Alkmaar attacker and started an Arsenal counter. Two out of three ain’t bad.

On the other side of Diaby, Cesc Fabregas has FIGURATIVELY exploded. He’s now scored 8 goals and provided 11 assists in just 13 games in all competitions and his return in the Champions League is a massive 3 goals and 2 assists in just 4 matches. I credit this to the new system and to the strength and confidence that the whole team has in Alex Song. Last season, Cesc seemed reticent to get forward but now there’s no holding him back. All these goals are making him more and more confident as well and he’s taking his chances like an old pro. The one-touch on the second goal last night was something that only an experienced player pulls off.

After a long layoff, it was really special to see Samir Nasri play all 90 minutes and get a goal. He showed yesterday why his dribbling and finishing are crucial to Arsenal breaking down defensive minded teams. Here’s hoping that Nasri stays healthy from here on out, he’ll be perfect to slot in when any of the front three or midfield three need a rest.

Last but not least, Andrei Arshavin has come in for a bit of criticism over the last couple of weeks, from me as well as others, for appearing to be a bit lazy and sometimes not tracking back and helping out in defense. Last night he put all those criticisms to bed as he both surged forward providing three assists with perfect passing and tracked back unafraid to kick at the heels of the Alkmaar wingers. Maybe he was playing with a bot of a knock the last few games, no one is saying, but whatever the reason, Arshavin showed last night why he’s such an important player for Arsenal.

Man of the Match

I’m giving Andrei Arshavin MotM because he was so crucial to 3/4 of Arsenal’s goals yesterday.

The Bad

The AZ keeper was beaten three times at his near post and I wonder if Arsenal didn’t study video of him and found out that he was vulnerable to near post goals. It was a strange performance from a guy who I rated very highly after the away match.

A bad also has to go to Eboue and Almunia who combined in a lazy display at the end of the match to let AZ get on the sheet. It’s not the end of the world but Eboue could have put in a tackle on Lens, I mean ostensibly, Eboue is a defender, he should know how to tackle, right? And Almunia… sigh. I think he just turned off at the end of the game there. It was eerily similar to a goal he conceded at Citeh and makes me wonder where his head is sometimes.

The Ugly

Right after he scored the first goal, Cesc Fabregas was seen angrily barking at David Mendes da Silva before his teammates surrounded him and pushed him to midfield. I can’t find anything which explains what Cesc’s beef was with Mendes though I did find a photo of Mendes speaking to the press before the match. So, I wonder if he didn’t say something.

It’s also possible that Mendes said something after he scored the goal in the away leg. I don’t know, if you all find an article or a quote, I’m interested in hearing it.

Conclusions

Arsenal’s record in all competitions is now, P18 W14 D2 L2 F51 A19 and their home record is a perfect, P10 W10 D0 L0 F33 A7. There is no doubt that Arsenal are dominating at home, which is great. Moreover, Arsenal are currently scoring at an incredible rate, having put in 51 goals in 18 matches, which is a 2.83 per match scoring rate.

According to Goodplaya, back in 1992, Arsenal set a record by scoring 92 goals in a season and this feat was commemorated with a video called “92 in 92″ or something. At our current rate, we’ll score 107 goals in the Premier League alone, and how many Arsenal can score in all the other competitions will likely be down to how long they stay in each competition. Like I’ve said before, 100 League goals would be an unparalleled feat and in my mind, at least as good, if not better than the Invincibles season — especially if it leads to the League title. Of course, there’s a lot of matches to be played between here on the League title, but Wenger, for one, sees this team really gaining momentum:

I believe that this season, it looks like we get stronger from game to game so it’s important to keep that attitude, to progress, to improve, to play for each other even more, and then we are allowed to believe in our future.

Incredible home form will help, but it’s Arsenal’s away form which needs to be tightened up defensively and opened up offensively. Wenger explains that at well:

We try always to play exactly the same game and the price we have to pay with our game is that anywhere we go teams will organize first not to concede. And when you play away from home, the commitment, that little push, is a bit stronger, and the commitment is a bit higher, and the referee a bit more lenient sometimes. So, it’s a bit more difficult to express yourself than at home.

Having just scored 7 home goals in two matches, Arsenal next travel to the Molineaux to play Wolves on Saturday and perhaps can get that away form rolling.

In the mean time, Arsenal supporters should revel in a great win. The team is clicking and goals are coming in from all over. It’s a good to be a Goonah.

Arsenal v. AZ Alkmaar; time to beat the Koemann “hoodoo”

Arsenal’s Champions League knockout stage qualification is pretty much academic at this point. If Olympiakos lose we’re in. If we get a point tonight, we’re in. Basically, Arsenal have to lose tonight to fail to qualify. Which brings me to the point of the blog: we’re not going to lose, we’re going to stuff Koemann’s supposed “hoodoo” over Arsenal and Arsene Wenger down his Dutch throat. We’re also going to stuff the League title down Fergie’s whale-sized throat. While we’re at it, we’re going to stuff Tony Cascarino’s “5er” down his throat. And well, I could go on about throats and stuffing but suffice it to say we’ll be throat stuffers!

That is, if we can stay healthy. It turns out that Clichy’s injury is not a repeat of the stress fracture that he suffered at the end of last season, but a stress fracture… on the same vertebrae, but on the other side. He was out 11 weeks with this injury last year, I don’t see any reason why it won’t be the same again this year. 11 weeks means that Gibbs will be starting left-back until February. A quick word about that; Gibbs will make mistakes, he might even cost us points, but we all need to get behind him and keep his spirits up. We need Gibbs to play the best football of his life for the next three months and the only way he can do that is if we stay off his back and support him. He’s a young player and every mistake he makes will be magnified in his mind already, he won’t need us groaning at every stray pass.

The groaning at stray passes is something we need to stop doing anyway. If we don’t, opposition managers like Harry Redknapp will use it to motivate his team against our boys. Harry tried to do so on Saturday as evidenced by his post-match interview where he mentioned, specifically, the crowd groaning and how that motivated his players. He pointed to the crowd “getting on Arsenal’s back” as a reason why he thought his tactics were working.

The good news today is that United manager, Ferguson, has stated in United’s official magazine about who he thinks the real title challengers are this season and has dismissed Arsenal’s chances. Stating that he thinks it’s a two horse race, he said only Chelsea will be pushing United. It’s a well known fact that anyone and anything that Ferguson dismisses he actually sees as a huge threat. In fact, the more vitriolic, the more of a threat he sees them. That’s why he’s been going after the referees so vociferously these last few weeks: Man U are used to getting all of the calls and with his team basically a defensive shambles they need the refs in their pocket even more than ever before. Expect to hear more vitriol from Whiskey Face as Arsenal close the gap.

And finally… fuck Tony Cascarino. Sorry if that offends you, but read the link above and see if you don’t agree.

Right, that’s it for today. Arsenal will be beating the pants off AZ Alkmaar today at 11:45 am PST on Setanta in the USA. After Koeman shot his mouth off some more about how he beat us before, I’m so confident of a win that I have my unlucky Dennis Bergkamp strip on. If you’re in town, I’ll be down at Doyle’s after work today (3:45pm or so) watching a tape delay of the match, join me.

Arsenal v. AZ; Wenger talks about Kroenke, Injuries, Robin, AZ, and Diaby is “good in the air.”

Arsene Wenger sat with the media ahead of tomorrow’s AZ Alkmaar clash for a mere 15 minutes today and it seems to be the interview that launched 1000 news stories, so there’s lots to get to today. We’ve got Kroenke, injuries, Robin, AZ, Diaby, and an invitation from me to help write a bit.

Kroenke increases shares to 29.6%

Wenger was asked about Kroenke’s share-buying activity this week and in typical fashion deflected and suggested that the reporter ask Stan the Man himself about what his intentions are. When pressed by the reporter Wenger jokingly said that at the moment Kroenke “flirts” with the 30% mark, but has not gone all the way. Personally, it looks more like he’s gotten to 3rd base than just flirting.

All signs point to a shareholder who is consolidating his position rather than moving in for a hostile takeover. There’s good reason for Kroenke to purchase loose shares: to consolidate his and the board’s grip on the shares needed to keep control of the board, and to prevent his main boardroom competitor from getting a larger foothold in the club.

It cannot be stressed enough that even if he reaches the magical 30% threshold, the other shareholders are not obliged to sell to him. This means that it looks like a plurality of ownership will remain. His business model is a combination of co-ownership and outright ownership — with the bigger ticket items co-owned and the smaller, more risky, teams owned outright. Thus, Arsenal as a huge and safe bet fits right into his co-ownership model.

The Arsenal Supporter’s Trust released a statement today which outlines their position on any possible takeover and, having spoken with representatives of KSE and Stan himself, has stated directly that they do not feel a takeover is imminent:

The AST has repeatedly stated that we are generally opposed to a takeover and would fight any plans that require the club to incur debt to pay for a takeover as has happened at Manchester United and Liverpool.

Two red lines that cannot be crossed are the use of debt secured on the club’s assets to fund a takeover and an ownership structure which excludes small shareholders.

The AST’s own assessment of today’s development is that a takeover is not imminent and that today’s purchase is the consolidation of an existing position.

I agree with everything they have said.

Injuries

Wenger described Bendtner as “quite seriously injured” which won’t surprise anyone who saw the way he was holding his adductor on Saturday — I’m not calling it a groin pull, that sounds childish, it’s an adductor pull which sounds serious, or at least studious. Bendtner is out for “at least” 4 weeks.

As I know from T-Town Alex, who is French, French time is different from English time. If T-Town Alex says he’ll be there in 15 minutes, it actually means 30 minutes. So, Wenger’s  “4 weeks” puts Bendtner back in the team in January.

The good news in that position is that Rosicky is back but will not get the start to cover on that right hand side. I like the idea of bringing Rosicky on late on the right against Alkmaar because his close control and dribbling will be essential for breaking AZ’s 10 man defense, especially when they have tired legs.

Clichy is the other big surprise injury and Wenger said he suffered a “stress fracture” in his back and will be out for “a few weeks.” A few weeks? I seriously doubt it. If this is a recurrence of his back problems of last year, we’ll be looking at more like “a few months” or maybe “the rest of the season.” I’m not trying to second guess or hype the injury but I’ve broken my back and it takes more than “a few weeks” to recover. Gibbs, future England number 3, will be called upon to step in and Traore will provide cover with Wenger joking that this club is fortunate to be gifted with left-backs. I was sort of joking about an England call up, but just today, Gibbs was talking about how he needed to prove something for Arsenal before he could even start thinking about the England side. I guess he’ll get his chance?

In the keeper spot Almunia is now and forever Arsenal number 1 and Mannone is backup: until Almunia makes a mistake.

Half Henry Bergkamp Half van Persie

Wenger wanted to clear up the notion that he claimed Robin van Persie is “Half Henry — Half Bergkamp” and did so in typical AW fashion:

He’s a little bit of a mixture of Thierry Henry and a little bit of Denis Bergkamp because he’s not purely a target player like Thierry was and he’s not a runner of the ball like Thierry was but he can play up front on his own. And he’s not a Denis Bergkamp because he’s not purely a passer of the ball, a final ball giver like Dennis. He’s a bit of both, he’s also a sexual tyrannosaur, half shark alligator half man, and a sprinkle of piranha, that’s why he’s van Persie.

I understand he’s also a considerate lover.

On tomorrow’s match

As I pointed out in yesterday’s “10 match review” this Arsenal team have been bitten a few times from lack of concentration and focus in games. So far, this disease has been exclusively the domain of away games where our record in the EPL is 2-1-2 and our goal differential is a measly +3 which includes a 6-1 win over Everton. Since that opening win over Everton, Arsenal’s away GD is -2. A lot of people can point to what happened at AZ Alkmaar and rightly say that it wasn’t as much of a blip as a continuation of poor away form. So, while I agree with Arsene that this team needs to show focus and resolve tomorrow, I’m not worried that they won’t because our home form has been spectacular. In fact, in 9 home games in all competitions Arsenal have scored 32 goals (avg. 3.5) and allowed just 6 goals. Given the level of competition we saw from AZ in the last match, I’m just being honest, I suspect a 3 or even 4 to nil score line.

Winning tomorrow would basically qualify Arsenal for a 10th consecutive knockout stage berth, but Wenger wants more, he wants to win the group. I completely agree with this philosophy. Great teams don’t back into a tough competition, they go out and crush their enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.

The Hollandaise press are making a big deal of Ronald Koeman “never losing to Arsene” and even going so far as to suggest that Koeman has Wenger’s number. Arsene just laughed about this and said that Koeman didn’t score the last minute equalizer at AZ. In a sense he’s right, but in a sense he’s wrong. Koeman has played a very specific tactic against Arsenal one that even a novice manager can see and it’s been pretty effective — if by effective you mean “securing a draw at all costs and sneaking a win.” Don’t be surprised if there’s a “park the bus” tactic for all 90 minutes followed by a brief flurry of activity as AZ try to steal a goal on a set play at the end.

Diaby

Put down your coffee…

Ok, ready?

When asked whether Diaby has proved himself in the absence of Denilson, Arsene Wenger said

I think he has done extremely well. He is a player who is good in the challenge, which we have been criticized for lacking in the past. He is good in the air. He has a high work-rate and he gives us a good balance in the midfield. He likes to play up front behind the strikers but because he’s so strong in the challenge, I see him, later, a bit deeper, in front of the defenders because he’s very good in the air, he’s very quick, very strong in the challenge, and when he wins the ball, he can accelerate the game.

This has to be the most egregious example of Arsene Wenger blowing smoke up our asses I have ever seen. I know that he protects his players, I know that he likes to talk about the positives, and I can think of a lot of positives to say about Abou Diaby but I can’t think of a single person on this earth who thinks that Abou Diaby is good in the air. He is very tall and he jumps very high but his timing is terrible. He’s more likely to put a ball off his shoulder than his head.

Incredibly, Wenger does then go on to criticize him, by saying that he’s “attracted like a magnet” to the goal and that we don’t need 7 players going forward. But… but… but… THAT’S HIS BEST QUALITY!

It’s really incredible stuff. Maybe he’s using this as an opportunity to try to mould this player into something different than he already is? Maybe by “good in the air” Wenger meant that while on the airplane from London to Europe he’s always very polite, unlike Sp*s who are utter cocks wherever they go? I don’t know, but it’s mind boggling to think that Wenger would actually say that Diaby is good in the air and not burst out laughing.

Oh, and if you were hoping for a January signing of a hard man in the middle of the field you might as well put that wish list away — Diaby looks like he’s going to be our man when Song is gone.

“Man” on the scene

And finally, I’d like to extend the offer to anyone who attends any game to help write a section of the Good, Bad, and Ugly which I am tentatively calling “‘Man’ on the scene. ” A lot of my readers are foreigners (as far flung as the Philippines and Thailand) and what we get on television is a watered down snippet of what happens when you actually get to a match. So, if you’re going to a match and you’re willing to write a few hundred words about the atmosphere before, during, and after the match or pretty much anything you want to write about (around match day) drop me an email:

7amkickoff at gmail dot com

I’d love to include some match reporting from the actual matches.

Right, that’s it for today. Tomorrow’s match kicks off at 11:45 am PST and I know for a fact that Doyle’s in Tacoma is playing it live. I also know that I cannot watch the match live but my good friend Russ at Doyle’s is taping the match for me and I’ll get to watch it after work. Drop me a line if you want to get together tomorrow afternoon and watch the match.

I’ll probably do a brief blog tomorrow followed by a full on internet blackout (by me) until after the match. So, see you tomorrow, and UP THE ARSE!