Patchy Arsenal Take Deserved Three Points

Arsenal 2 – 1 Burnley

Sean Dyche chatted sh*t after the game about simulation. Of course he did; his team lost.

The real target of his ire was his own player’s stupidity. Instead of criticising Ashley Barnes stupidity, he thought Sead Kolasinac an easy target. Not that he mentioned him by name; he’s seen the video.

Barnes pulled Kola, no doubt about the contact. In those circumstances, with Whistle-Happy Dean in control, it was always going to be a free-kick. I’d have been cross if Kola hadn’t tumbled, knowing the final whistle was imminent.

We haven’t indulged in that kind of sh*housery since Peter Storey had his ‘666’ birthmark removed.

The Gruffalo is a plank, pure and simple. No player sat there thinking, “Oooh, I’ve got one warning about sh*thousery; I’ll just collect a booking and subsequent club fine” simply because that yellow card puts them one mistimed tackle from a red.

Still, you have to admire Dyche’s willingness to charge into Pulis’ throne as Goonerverse’s pantomime villain. It’s been kinda boring without one. Mustafi doesn’t count before you ask; his is unintentional villainy.

Football wisdom has it that winning whilst playing badly is the sign of champions. We won’t be champions; we didn’t play badly for a start, just in patches. We’re still finding our way into the season, with spells of numbing football – preseason football – surfacing.

Next weekend, we need a leap in our intensity, in concentration. Liverpool’s prayers that Alisson will recover seem set to be unanswered so their defence is as vulnerable as ours. Anyone for a 5 – 4 cracker? I’m just not certain who will win.

Leno’s distribution yesterday was inconsistent; poor under the pressure exerted from goal-kicks, better with time on his hands. It will improve with confidence as he gets used to the new era of football.

Let’s Talk About The Match

There are lies, damn lies and football statistics. Burnley had twice as many shots on goal but half the number of ours on target. Which of the two stats are you happier with?

Of course, it’s the latter; the only one which matters is, as ever, the final score. 2 – 1 might have been 3 – 1 were it not for those pesky officials who spotted Nacho Monreal’s toenail being offside. VAR and the lino conspired against leaving Reiss Nelson, quiet otherwise, still waiting for his first Arsenal goal.

He nearly got us out of gaol; we’d thrown away the deserved lead given to us by Alexandre Lacazette. That was a penalty, by the way; maybe the Gruffalo needs to worry about the stupid fouls his team are giving away.

The concern with the Burnley’s goal is how easily we were susceptible to the counter-attack. Last season hasn’t ended yet, has it? The issue is clouded with Emery playing without a defensive midfielder. No, that’s not a cheap jibe at Granit Xhaka; he wasn’t fit.

That was a cheap jibe at Granit Xhaka, however.

Which brings us to the enjoyable points of yesterday and that was most of the game. Certainly, the bits when Dani Ceballos is in possession. I’m far from being the only one who wants Real Madrid to go on a spending spree to the point where he has no future at the Bernabeu.

He has a very bright one at the Emirates. So bright, match tickets ought to come with shades.

Victory came thanks to a goal apiece for Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Naturally, two assists for Ceballos. The first from a corner which found an Arsenal player, which is something worth celebrating in itself.

I Cannot Think Of A Better Home Debut

The closest any Burnley defender got to Dani Ceballos all afternoon

Lacazette ignored the distraction of a marauding Monreal to control the ball and as he was hauled to the ground, turned and shot powerfully through the Pope’s legs. There’s a catholic joke in there somewhere, screaming to stay in. I’ll oblige this morning.

The second is the dogged determination that inspires others. Ceballos, unusually, ceded possession cheaply. Before Gudmonsson settled on the ball and thought about a counterattack, Ceballos was on him and winning the ball back.

Aubameyang said “thank you very much” and flew at the Clarets defence before scoring with some aplomb from the edge of the area. Game over.

Everything Ceballos touched turned goldish in colour. He rarely wasted possession with quick feet and an even quicker mind evident. Dribbling, passing; you name it, he was a wide range of everything.

The only genuine improvement is in his finishing and even then, the willingness to shoot from anywhere is at once refreshing and a blessed relief.

His ball control is mesmerising. The synthetic pigskin is glued to his boot the moment he brings it under his spell, ready to cast magic with an ease that makes Harry Potter puke.

He treats the ball reverentially. It isn’t a hot potato, it is caressed through his strides; never so far ahead that he loses control, never so close that he falls over it. It is just there; tantalising opponents with glimpses, in the same way, Robert Pires taunted the Premier League all those years ago.

If David Luiz is a defensive inspiration, Ceballos occupies a god-like status.

I cannot think of a more impressive home debut and the rapturous applause which hailed his departure from the action underlines that.

C’mere, There’s More

Nicolas Pepe had to be content with another cameo from the bench. He improved as he got into the game with nutmegs and flashes of pace as he ran at the Burnley defence. A full debut at Anfield? It’s got to be on the cards, especially as we will be playing on the break.

And Luiz was a calming in a back four which was a bit jittery. As per usual, that nervousness was of our own making. We’ll get better as the season progresses; we need to by next weekend, if that’s not too much to ask for.

Overall, it’s a good three points to claim; a decent performance but plenty to work on.

To answer the question about comparing six points after two games to none last season; better to look at the corresponding fixtures. We took six then, we have six now; business as usual.

’til Tomorrow.

Burnley Preview: Youth Gives Way to New Boys

The opening home game of the season is always a special occasion. The campaign is really underway when the Arsenal lay in front of their own fans.

Today sees an attempt to inject atmosphere into the stadium:

Hope it goes better for you than the parachutist who ended up in the North Bank building site.

It is a big day for Unai Emery. We get a better idea of who his core players will be. Most were on the pitch last weekend at some point but Alexandre Lacazette, for example, wasn’t.

While we set out with a 4-2-3-1 formation last week, it’s a home game; we’ll need to be more adventurous in our play. It takes a subtle change in personnel to achieve that end and Granit Xhaka’s absence helps. That’s if he hasn’t recovered from his back problem.

The upcoming matches against Liverpool and Tottenham influence team selection, surely? It’s too much to expect full debuts at Anfield or in the North London Derby. Too many of the new signings are in key positions to be left to tat level of chance.

Which is tough on this such as Chambers, Nelson and Willock who will drop to the bench. David Luiz and Nicholas Pepe are almost certain to start. Dani Ceballos faces competition from Mesut Özil who returned to training this week.

Unai’s caution with player fitness suggests the German won’t start. His absence from the club derailed the final phase of his preseason training and it seems most contrary to put him in from the start.

But needs must. The answer to that little problem comes with Ceballos’ own fitness. I was surprised he didn’t start at St James Park but a home game is in many respects an easier introduction to the English game.

Talking Balls

Alongside Ceballos (or Özil) in a midfield trio, I’d like to see Torreira and Guendouzi. The former takes the defensive duties, the latter the harrying.

It’s a complicated choice although the decision is masked by fitness. There are so many factors at play in this aspect of the team selection.

Not least of which is Granit Xhaka. He’s been burbling on about how captaining Arsenal is an honour, seemingly oblivious to it being a poisoned chalice. Captains don’t last too long; age or greed catches up with sooner or later.

Unless, of course, this is his way of handing in a transfer request but keeping all his loyalty bonuses intact.

On the playing side, I’ve been clear that I think we have better options and combinations. I don’t, however, agree that he and David Luiz cannot play in the same side. Emery will prove that wrong in coming weeks, if not today.

Xhaka is a ‘caught in between’ midfielder. Arsène and Unai want him to be a defensive midfielder which he quite clearly isn’t. Yet we don’t play a system which suits his relatively static style.

He’s caught in between a rock and a hard place. A style which doesn’t suit him in a role to which he is ill-suited.

Nonetheless, Wenger and now Emery like him so in the XI he stays. For the moment: Unai is no stranger to using players for expediencies sake.

All of which leaves us with the forward line. A potentially prolific one at that. Close to 70 goals between them last season; no wonder Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang salivated at the prospect of playing with Pepe and Lacazette.

A fluid, interchangeable trio, taking spaces left by the runs of others? It’s definitely the most potent I can think of in my Arsenal lifetime.

Pace, Power, Proligacy

Hopefully not the latter. Or not the latter to the extent that we are left ruing missed chances.

Notionally, you’d expect Pepe and Aubameyang to occupy the wider roles. The latter worked OK in preseason for Auba so no reason why it shouldn’t now we’re playing proper matches.

There are so many potentially potent combinations for the three to play, it is almost dizzying. Unai may have a cunning plan to bring out the best in them. I’m hoping it isn’t the Baldrick moment most of us would have when it comes to fitting them into the side!

But fit them in he must. We’re facing Burnley; in the real and electronic stands we’ve banked the three points and are preparing for the sterner tests ahead. If you’re going to give out a sprinkling of debuts, this is the game to do it in.

Which leaves the team:

Leno; Maitland-Niles, Luiz, Sokratis, Monreal; Torreira, Guendouzi, Ceballos; Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang

Özil, Willock and Nelson are the subs between the 60th and 85th minutes, injuries excepted.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.

‘til Tomorrow

On Ozil and Home Debuts in Early Burnley Thoughts

Unai met the press yesterday with Mesut Ozil and Sead Kolasinac dominating the reporting.

As you’d expect, he welcomed them back. Not just as a boss or Arsenal employee but as human beings as well. First and foremost, he observed. He didn’t welcome them back into the starting line-up, however.

They might there but it seems unlikely. Ozil was ill during the week but irrespective of that, both players cannot be as fit as others. In any case, do you change a winning line-up beyond reasons of necessity?

Granit Xhaka’s back-knack, for example, necessitates change. It isn’t a bad injury, he could probably play but for a midfielder, anything which restricts mobility isn’t a good thing. You can insert your own joke about that here.

Nonetheless, the win at Newcastle should see Emery keep faith with the majority of that XI. Does the majority mean the youth of Nelson and Willock continues in the side? The fitness of Nicolas Pepe and Dani Ceballos answers that question, answers Unai expects to get after today’s final training session.

Ozil might think he’s ready for the visit of Burnley but that’s a minority view. A place on the bench? It might be an idea with Liverpool and Tottenham awaiting in the next fortnight.

This is the weekend where Emery’s preferred XI begins to take shape. Unfortunately, there will be some players who lose out for no reason other than there are better players in the squad. I’d venture that for Willock and Chambers, that’s unfortunate.

The former played well preseason and at St James’ Park. The latter is much better at centre-back than we thought. Doubling up as a midfielder gives him the versatility we may appreciate as the season takes its toll.

Mum’s The Word

Yet David Luiz is more experienced and in Xhaka’s potential absence, a better range of passing. One which gives us more variety. It’s a chance for Chambers to learn; he and Rob Holding are the future so this might be a season where they don’t feature as often as they might expect.

Whether Ozil will is another question. Debates over his future were almost moot. But not quite. Unai, you see, doesn’t sit around all day thinking about selling the German. Shocking, huh?

Even more shocking is someone asking the Spaniard if he is considering selling Ozil. Or expecting an answer; not everyone is as open as Neil Lennon although the Celtic boss doesn’t have a Cluj about much these days.

It was highly unlikely that Emery would admit the player can leave if he wants under normal circumstances. Now, it’s even less so. He knows how that plays out in the media so will be careful what he says.

The smoke for the story comes from his agent meeting DC United. It would be remiss of him not to hear what they have to say; he’s only got his client’s best interests to be concerned about, not those of Arsenal.

That doesn’t affect tomorrow’s team selection; it shouldn’t affect it any time unless there is a sale on the horizon. Ozil, a week or so out of training, won’t be as fit as others. Ceballos is more likely to start unless Joe Willock gets another chance.

Emery’s dilemma is Ceballos. If he doesn’t start tomorrow, playing him at Anfield is a huge risk. Training cannot replicate the pressures and intensity of ninety minutes; it prepares them for some semblance of it but nothing, we’re told by former pros, gets close to the real thing.

Early Burnley Thoughts

Burnley will be a tough introduction for those not used to English football, Pepe included. Good, honest professionals, he says patronising them.

At home, they are good opponents for Ceballos and Pepe to meet English football. Newcastle were supine, nowhere near as intense as a home side should be on the opening day of the season. Burnley, fresh from a win over Southampton, will pose a sterner test.

Last season’s European misadventures cannot hinder them this season and they are primed for a top ten finish, maybe seventh if the wind blows in the right direction.

Sean Dyche’s side plays a bit more football than Stoke or Bolton ever did and will certainly ask more questions of the defensive side of our game. But we’re at home and given the history between the two sides, we ought to win.

And we expect to. The season is picking up pace, as much as one game per week for the first month permits.

Not quite quick enough; two games every week can’t come soon enough!

’til Tomorrow.

Newcastle Review: One-Nil To The Arsenal

Newcastle United 0 – 1 Arsenal

On every level, Yesterday’s win at St James Park was ideal. Bar entertaining football; I’ll give you that.

Entertaining football, however, isn’t what was needed; a clean sheet and three points were. Let’s be honest about the performance; we’ll play better and lose. The air of preseason never lifted from the XI with stray passes and woeful finishes evident.

Sometimes from the same player which gives a prime example. While they were on the pitch together, Joe Willock and Henrikh Mkhitaryan ceded possession at similar levels or so I read.

It’s an instructive lesson in player popularity because Willock gave a promising performance. Mkhitaryan, on the other hand, was hopeless for large swathes of the match.

If he had been hooked at halftime, nobody would have complained. To the surprise of everyone, he wasn’t. Imagine my surprise when I read he completed 33 of his 45 passes.

The problem with the Armenian is that he too often shows the talent he possesses, making you wonder why he doesn’t do so more consistently. A sublime pass sent Aubameyang through but weighing heavily against that is the ballooned effort when scoring seemed easier.

Nicolas Pepe won’t be losing sleep about competition for his place in the first XI.

That’s focussing too much on the wrong individual for the wrong reason. Using last season as a benchmark, yesterday’s performance was a vast improvement. We maintained our defensive shape for the most part, with the only concern being that we left too big a gap to Reiss Nelson and Aubameyang.

However, throttling and subsequently compressing play had the desired effect; the home crowd’s apathy surfaced. Only when we became sloppy and ceded possession cheaply did they come alive. The hills certainly had eyes when Shelvey’s shot deflected onto the post.

Auba Through, Auba Scores

For the large part, we forced Newcastle to make unforced errors. When we retained the ball and threatened their penalty area, the fouled with no fear of punishment.

Martin Atkinson proved them right. Bodychecks and grabbing the neck of an opponent’s shirt by those in black and white were met with “Oh, you little tinker” from the inept official.

Looking at the ball in an aggressive manner whilst wearing a yellow shirt? A cautionable offence. Fair play to those who fell foul of Atkinson for not seeing red.

Unai was pleased with the performance. He made it plain that winning was all but went onto say:

I want to win, I want to score and I want to do a clean sheet. Today we won and we did that. The balance offensively and defensively is only taken with the victory.

Today, I think, in our 90 minutes we could do that with taking the match very seriously, being very compact and controlling the game with the ball. Also, I think we created chances and we need also to create chances for our strikers and today with Auba we won.

Unai wants to win. He really does.

To win you must score goals and Aubameyang’s beautiful finish proved the difference between the two sides. Ainsley Maitland-Niles sprinted to intercept a cross-field pass, gambolled down the wing and delivered a composed pass to Auba, who exploited the space left by an errant centre-back.

Basically, it was the sort of goal we conceded last year except we delivered it with more finesse. I can’t speak highly enough of AMN’s contribution; it was alert, instinctive, ambitious but calm.

Calm, Calm, Calm

That was the striking aspect, even more so than Auba’s instinctive finishing; AMN wasn’t flustered, didn’t suffer a rush of blood to the head. Maybe a place in the midfield for the youngster next season isn’t so fanciful a notion.

As a whole, the back four played well. Newcastle’s chances remained below double digits which given our away form last year, is hugely unimpressive. Half of them were from distance, offering a better view of the defensive unity between midfield and defenders.

Calum Chambers impressed in the centre of defence. His disciplined performance alongside Sokratis was a breath of fresh air. It relaxed the Greek as well; he was free to lead the defensive line and bring his own style of sh*thousery to the table.

As did Dani Ceballos; we may no longer be the genial pushovers of recent years. And Sideshow Bob sat on the bench throughout…

Overall, it was a game where we shook off the rust. We took three points, saw interesting cameos from new signings, as well as from youngsters. For a team which was missing half of what will be the first XI when all are fit, we did pretty well.

Three Things I Noticed At St James Park

  1. If Manchester United can loan Alexis, can’t we do the same with Mkhitaryan? It can’t be that hard, surely?
  2. Mustafi won’t even play in domestic cups or Europa League dead rubbers unless we put him at right back.
  3. That’s it. Two out is enough, especially if we get €30m for Mustafi.

‘til Tomorrow.

Newcastle Preview: Will Arsenal Be On Song Or Out Of Toon?

I knew the season was upon us when I penned last night’s 2019-20 preview. Yes, the Premier League began on Friday but the matches so far all had the air of preseason friendly about them.

The matches played so far by last season’s top teams were depressingly familiar. Despite playing badly or being out of sorts, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham ran out comfortable winners.

Two promoted teams and West Ham aren’t tough tests; however, the manner in which the three were swatted aside suggests another procession for the Champions League places.

So, along comes the spanner in the works. That’s what Unai Emery’s team hope to be; the wrecking ball which smashes through those getting too comfortable in their Premier League positions. Like we were when the top four was the be-all and end-all of our seasons. Even if we squandered the money.

Arsenal travel to Newcastle United; the Premier League proper begins. The Barcodes have a new manager and like everyone else, spent money like there’s no tomorrow this summer.

I can’t help but think that losing Benitez and Perez will hurt them more than they think. However, local lad Joe Linton makes his debut and the Gallowgate is hoping for another hero. We’ve got an accommodating defence.

Saed Kolasinac and Mesut Ozil are absent for well-documented reasons. David Luiz, fresh from frollicking on the London Colney turf, might start; it’s a risk but Sideshow Bob is always one footstep away from being a risk.

The gambolling around Hertfordshire’s green pastures makes him the likely debutant for Arsenal. Dani Ceballos, given Ozil’s enforced absence, surely starts as well.

These are exciting times when you’re wondering which of the new signings will start. Will they improve the team? Does Ceballos fit Emeryball better than Ozil? What is Emeryball?

Pepe Talk

I don’t think Nicolas Pepe will start but you can’t rule it out. Alexandre Lacazette training with the first team following his calf injury suggests the club-record signing will be on the bench. Pepe’s pace, however, is likely to draw an ‘oh f**k’ reaction from tiring defenders when he emerges in the second half.

Without a natural fit on the wing, we’ll likely be playing a narrow 4-3-1-2 with width provided by Nacho Monreal and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Yes, the defensive gaps will appear when they go forward but sit Torreira, Guendouzi and Xhaka in front of them and we’ll have some barrier.

Or we should have. A repeat of the first-half performance in the Camp Nou is, as I mentioned last night, the benchmark. Pivotal to that was Joe Willock; Ozil played then so there’s no issue with him and Ceballos in the same team. Is today his chance?

If Nicolas Pepe is knackered from the summer, the same applies to Lucas Torreira after Copa America. As was observed in one of the commentaries this weekend, seasons don’t end anymore. International tournaments mean they merge almost seamlessly into one another.

Who Willock replaces is the question. Guendouzi seems likeliest but if Torreira is tired, Joe fits in nicely alongside the Frenchman and Xhaka. And there is plenty of opportunity for a Jimi Hendrix reference in the headline.

Which, with kick-off fast approaching, is time to delve into the line-up:

Leno; Maitland-Niles, Luiz, Sokratis, Monreal; Xhaka, Guendouzi, Willock; Ceballos; Lacazette, Aubameyang

Nelson in a more orthodox 4-3-3? Possibly, particularly if Torreira starts. We’ll soon find out.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.

’til Tomorrow.