Four Gunners Star as England Edge Past Estonia

Enduring a weekend without Arsenal football can be rather frustrating but when you bear in mind that you’d get the chance to see some of the players don the kits of their national teams, you’d sit back relax and enjoy whatever they have to offer. I’d spent the entirety of my Sunday playing FIFA 15 (started just after the church service) but I took a mini-break to watch England play away to Estonia. With the European outfit not having any household name I could think about, I’d envisaged that the Three Lions would knock a hatful of goals past them.

From an Arsenal perspective, there were starts for Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Calum Chambers while Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had to make do with a place on the bench. Liverpool hotshot, Raheem Sterling, was also given a breather as the manager stated that he was ‘tired’. Wayne Rooney was on the spotlight following his act of sheer stupidity in the West Ham and in his absence, his teammates did just fine as they had enough in the tank to beat Everton.

While I expected England to dominate the game, it was the home team that almost drew first blood when Fabian Delph was robbed off possession which allowed Sergei Zenjov to blast his effort that was deflected wide. From the resulting corner, Henri Anier fired his effort over. England’s first sniff at goal arrived when Jordan Henderson latched on to Leighton Baines’ dead ball but the Estonia defense was alert to the danger he posed. England continued to grow in confidence as Rooney smashed a first-time shot over with a dipping cross from the left. Rooney then managed to fashion a chance for Delph but his finishing was wayward.

Wilshere battling in midfield

Rooney was a growing influence in the game and he did well to create a chance for Welbeck that was fired across the goalmouth but the ball evaded an onrushing Adam Lallana. Delph then hauled a cross for Rooney but he couldn’t guide his header goalwards. There was a concern for Arsenal fans when Chambers suffered a late tackle from Zenjov but at the end of the first half, Henderson mustered a long range drive that was easy pickings for the goalie.

England received a boost early in the second half when Ragnar Klavan, the Estonia skipper, foolishly fouled Delph to receive his marching orders from a second bookable offense. Rooney blasted the resulting free kick over the bar. The first substitution was made as Roy Hodgson clearly wanted to take numerical advantage by bringing on the Ox for a jaded Delph. Shortly afterwards, Sterling came on for Henderson. Both subs combined almost immediately to great effect with the resulting corner headed over by Gary Cahill. The Ox has forged an understanding with Chambers at club level and they almost replicated the feat for England but the winger made a mess of Chambers’ good cross.

With 17 minutes to go, Rooney broke the deadlock with a superb free kick that left the keeper no chance in Hell to save the ball.

There was another concern as Danny Welbeck picked up a ‘knock’ before he was replaced by Rickie Lambert. I hope it’s not serious though but I was scared as he walked straight to the dressing room following his substitution. The game eased off towards the end, which ensured that England are currently on top of Group E.

With the interlull over for the English Gunners, the Arsenal medical team would have to access Chambers and Welbeck that picked up knocks in the game and I hope that they’d be fine. Wilshere had another combative outing and the Ox showed glimpses of his quality.

Glad that’s over with. Work beckons.

Sayonara.

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Szczesny on Fire as Poland Humbles the World Champions

Germany's World Cup winners, including Mats Hummels, are dejected after the final whistle is blown in Warsaw

Germany has lost a qualifier for the first time in seven years

International football usually comes to life in the main tournaments but qualifiers serve as the gateway to the fiestas that take place in the summer, or harmattan period (winter) for those concerned with African football. Speaking of African football, I watched in anguish as my Nigeria faltered yet again at the hands of minnows, Sudan, the whooping boys of the group and with South Africa edging out Congo Brazzaville in the earlier fixture, Nigeria finds themselves in a very precarious situation.

The Gunners have been on international duty and with Mesut Ozil out injured as well as some concerns over Laurent Koscielny’s fitness, I was hoping that there’d be no more injuries for the players yet to feature for their nations. In the first phase of international fixtures, Arsenal had an impact in the England vs. San Marino game as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided an assist for Danny Welbeck and there was also time for Calum Chambers to get his full debut. Tomas Rosicky starred for the Czech Republic as they came from behind to defeat Turkey while Santi Cazorla had a handful of minutes in Spain’s shock loss to Slovakia. In the Americas, Alexis Sanchez created an assist in Chile’s victory over Peru while Joel Campbell and David Ospina spent all their time in the dugout.

The star match of the night was watching the world champions, Germany, take center stage against a Poland side led by Robert Lewandowski. From an Arsenal perspective, Wojciech Szczesny was the custodian between the sticks for his nation. As expected, Germany had more household names than the Poles with the likes of Manuel Neuer in goal, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels in the heart of the defense, Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle in midfield and Thomas Mueller spearheading the attack.

Right from the onset, Germany set the tone for the game as Mueller fired a shot that was saved by Szczesny in goal. This was the first of 29 shots that the Germans managed to fire in the course of the game. Lewandowski believed that he was fouled by Antonio Rudiger but his appeals for a penalty fell on deaf ears. The Germans almost had the lead when Christoph Kramer’s cross was fired wide by debutant, Karim Bellarabi. The German wave of pressure continued as Schurrle found Mueller clear on goal but his finish didn’t match the buildup. Bellarabi had another sniff at goal afterwards but Szczesny was on hand to make a good save.

Bellarabi came close to scoring past Arsenal keeper Wojciech Szczesny before half time

Against the run of play, Lukasz Piszczek surged down the right and swung a cross that was meant to be easy pickings for Neuer but Arkadiusz Milik responded faster than the German goalie to nick the ball past him with a glancing header that sent the Narodowy Stadium into raptures.

Milik gets between Germany keeper Manuel Neuer and Boateng (R) to score at the beginning of the second half

From the restart, Germany attacked Poland with Gotze firing a goal-bound shot that was parried by Szczesny but the home side responded as Kamil Grosicki surged past two German defenders before blasting a shot that was saved by Neuer. Hummels headed a corner wide and Bellarabi had another shot that was saved by Szczesny. At that moment, the Germans were wondering what they needed to get past the Arsenal keeper.

With 13 minutes to go, Joachim Loew summoned the services of Lukas Podolski that almost made an instant impact as he smashed Szczesny’s crossbar with his evil left foot before Gotze fired the ball over the bar. The Poles struck the killer blow when Lewandowski selflessly found an Sebastian Mila that steered his shot past Neuer to put the game beyond doubt.

This was the first time the Germans lost a qualifier since their defeat to Czech Republic as far back as 2007. That’s goes to show how consistent the nation has been down the years. It’s more or less a set back and I believe that the Germans would get back on track but from an Arsenal perspective, it was good to see Szczesny getting the plaudits for a great performance and I hope he builds on it.

Sayonara.

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More Injury Problems and the Per-fect Vice-Captain

The international break comes hand in hand with paucity of Arsenal news but when you have FIFA 15 on your PS4, you really wouldn’t care. It just hurts to know that all my players from my FIFA 14 Ultimate Team (overall team rating: 88) vanished into thin air and I had to start from scratch in the new game. I pre-ordered the FIFA 15 and got the Ultimate Edition but I have to wait for 40 weeks to get all the 40 free packs that came with the game.

Enough about me and my FIFA 15 ramblings though. From an Arsenal perspective, it has been very disheartening to see another player ravaged by the injury beasts that hover around North London. The Gunners are already without Matt Debuchy (ankle), Olivier Giroud (foot), Serge Gnabry, Theo Walcott (both knee), Nacho Monreal (back), Yaya Sanogo (hamstring), Mikel Arteta (calf), Aaron Ramsey (hamstring) and Abou Diaby (hip) but when the German National Team’s official Twitter handle tweeted that Mesut Ozil was going to be out for 10 – 12 weeks, I was devastated.

Fine, the big-money signing hasn’t hit the heights expected of him this season and I’ve dropped my thoughts in that regard but when I was at work yesterday and a fellow Gooner was “happy” that Ozil was injured, I was bewildered and perplexed. This is one of the best players at the club that is just going through a phase and I felt that the next run of fixtures, as well as Theo Walcott returning to full fitness would have afforded him a chance to regain his form. Walcott’s return is key in the sense that his arrival would mean that he slots automatically into the right wing, while Alexis Sanchez plays on the left with Danny Welbeck spearheading the attack. This ultimately meant that Ozil was going to return to the middle of the park to play alongside Jack Wilshere or Santi Cazorla as the two central midfielders of the 4-1-4-1 setup.

I wish him a speedy recovery and I hope he comes back with a bang for all them haters.

To add to Arsenal’s woes, Laurent Koscielny was sent back to the club after the French FA reported that he’s suffering from chronic tendinitis of both Achilles tendons and when you think that Thomas Vermaelen was allowed to go through the exit door without a replacement defender coming the other way, you may want to tear some hair from your head in anguish. After doing so well to invest in the squad early on, Wenger had the chance to buy a center back and DM but he chose to fold his hands. If you also think of the fact that Calum Chambers has been suspended for the Hull game due to his Flaminization (*Check your dictionary – Flaminization simply means having an addiction for yellow cards), Arsenal’s back line against Hull would feature the likes of Isaac Hayden / Hector Bellerin / Francis Coquelin which wouldn’t be that bad, bearing in mind on how they fared against Southampton in the Capital One Cup last month.

Thankfully, Per Mertesacker decided to hang his boots for Germany following his World Cup triumph and he shared his thoughts on why he made that decision,

“I reflected and last season was very tough. This season won’t be less intense so I needed a chance to rest and refuel. I want to push forward with the club now to show I can still improve. I realised over the last few years that the club really needs me and that was a big motivation to win something with them and then with Germany. As vice-captain I feel more responsibility for my work here and I want to achieve more in my next three years with Arsenal.”

What’s not to love about Per Mertesacker? With Arteta aging / living on borrowed time and Arsenal’s usual tradition (in recent times) of handing the band to the successor following the exit of a captain, you’re looking at the next Arsenal captain and I’d be proud if such a man would be given the mantle of leading the club when the time comes. From his tales of having an Arsenal jersey when he was a boy to the way he made it clear at Werder Bremen that he wanted to join the Gunners in transfer deadline day, he arrived in the Premier League and gave a shaky defense a new lease of life.

Mertesacker is an exceptional footballer, a leader, and most importantly, a defensive colossus. His pairing with Koscielny has been heralded as the one of the best pairing in the League and with 16 clean sheets to their name last season, it’s not hard to see why. In the absences of Vermaelen and Arteta, Mertesacker also wore the captain’s armband and his performance against Dortmund (last season) in his native Germany was one of the best performances I’ve seen from a defender in a game. Mertesacker would have been a pantomime villain if the penalty he conceded against Wigan turned out to be the deciding factor of the game but he showed off great determination to be on the right end of the pitch to head the ball home, sending the game into extra time.

His decision to retire from Germany in service of Arsenal is high up there with these things I’ve seen a footballer do. And for his sake, I hope he remains injury free for the rest of the campaign.

I wonder if that’s too much to ask.

Sayonara.

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Jack Wilshere: Thoughts on his Form this Season

Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere beat Joe Hart from an acute angle to finish off a fantastic team move in the second half

At a tender age, Jack Wilshere’s potential was very massive and he rose through the ranks before making his Arsenal debut at the age of 16 beating Cesc Fabregas’ record in the process. He was introduced slowly into the first team and made some appearances in the Cup ties but his big break arrived when he secured a loan move to Bolton Wanderers in the winter of 2010. Under the tutelage of Owen Coyle, Wilshere made 14 league appearances and scored one goal.

Everyone tipped Wilshere to go to Bolton again for another season but Arsene Wenger slotted the youngster straight into the first team and Wilshere repaid the manager’s faith with a string of breathtaking performances in the 2010/11 season. Wilshere’s performances on the pitch were good enough to send Abou Diaby and Denilson down the pecking order and the youngster was rightly rewarded with the PFA Young Player of the Year award for 2011. He also earned a place in the Team of the Year and was voted as Arsenal’s Player of the Season for 2011.

Arguably Wilshere’s best performance in an Arsenal jersey

Arsene Wenger had hoped that Wilshere would build on his breakthrough performances in the 2010/11 campaign but an ankle stress fracture kept him out for a lengthy period. From then on, Wilshere continued to have niggling injuries and the trend continued as the seasons progressed.

However, the Englishman managed to have a good preseason this campaign and with Mesut Ozil getting an extended break following his World Cup exertions, as well as a tactical switch to 4-1-4-1, Wilshere has had a consistent run of games, and he feels that he’s getting to his best,

“I feel good and I’m always looking to improve, no matter what. For a player of my age, I’ve missed a lot of football so I’m just trying to play as much as I can, train as much as I can and I’ve always said that when I get fully fit you’ll see the best of me.

“I said at the start of the season that it was going to take some time to get back to my best. Ever since my first injury, it’s always taken a run of games – probably between five and 10 – to get back to my best.

“Some players are different, some players come back and are at their best straight away. But some need a run of games and I’m one of those players.” 

This season, Wilshere has been a vital cog in Arsenal’s new look 4-1-4-1 formation, and under the new tactical approach, Arsene Wenger has finally found a way to accommodate him and Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park but unfortunately, it has been to the detriment of Mesut Ozil, as he has been playing on the wings for the considerable chunk of the season.

Listed below are Wilshere’s stats this season via WhoScored,

 

STATS (EPL Only)

Jack Wilshere

Appearances (Subs)

5 (1)

Goals Scored

1

Assists

1

Overall shots (Shots per Game)

6 (1)

Bookings (Yellow / Red)

3 / 0

Total Tackles (Tackles per Game)

4 (0.7)

Total Interceptions (Interceptions per Game)

2 (0.3)

Total Fouls Suffered (Fouls per Game)

15 (2.5)

Dribbles (Attempted/Won)

17 / 2.8

Total Passes (Accurate Passes)

271 (225)

Pass Completion %

83%

Total Long Balls (Accurate)

12 (9)

Total Through Balls (Accurate)

7 (2)

As these stats show, Jack Wilshere has continued to make those his lung-bursting runs and he has attempted 17 dribbles with 10 of them coming in the Arsenal vs Manchester City game, where he was a colossus in midfield. However, Wilshere has been fouled 15 times already and with the way he hugs onto the ball, the foul count is going to pile up. When the Gunners played Tottenham in the North London Derby, Wilshere twisted his ankle in an awkward manner but he managed to play for over an hour before he was substituted as he clearly struggled. The same could not be said about Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey, that had to be replaced immediately.

Ramsey and Wilshere out for Arsenal for Galatasaray and Maybe Chelsea

Wojciech Szczesny is someone that clearly has some faith in Wilshere’s abilities and he has stated that he can be a complete midfielder if he adds goals to his game, and to some extent, I agree. Goals are the very fabric of the beautiful game and if you have a player that is reliable enough to score on a consistent basis, he’d be a guaranteed starter in the team. See Aaron Ramsey for instance – his form has been very erratic this season  but he already has three goals to his name, which ultimately means that when he returns to full fitness, it’s a no-brainer that he’d return to the first team. Don’t get me wrong, Ramsey isn’t just in the first team because of the goalscoring threat he poses but he’s an all-rounder that contributes offensively and defensively.

In 142 appearances for the Gunners, Wilshere has scored 11 goals with five of them scored last season. With the Englishman clearly favored by the manager, he needs to keep performing well because Arsenal is a club that is well stocked with midfield options. Wilshere has a commanding presence in midfield that makes runs from midfield, penetrating defenses and creating space for himself or teammates.

For his sake, I hope the goals come along too.

Sayonara.

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Why Does Arsenal Perform Poorly in Big Away Games?

Flamini v Chelsea

Let me be brutally honest here. I wasn’t expecting anything less from Arsenal’s clash at Stamford Bridge, but a part of me had some little optimism that the Gunners might just do something to get some points from the tie. The lineup looked strong enough but I wondered why Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t start the game. That lad has been a bright spark in recent weeks and seeing him on the bench must have been gutting. Then again, Arsene Wenger needed his most experienced squad and he was left out.

It’s never nice singling out individuals in the wake of a loss but sometimes we need to tell ourselves the truth – Arsenal and playing well in big away games don’t just go hand in hand. I don’t know if it’s the team talk the manager gives his players before the encounter, or the intimidation from the away crowd, but the same players that would turn up the style in one game are always found wanting in big games.

Arsenal's Mesut Ozil Outshone by Chelsea's Former Gunner Cesc Fabregas

Fabregas made his mark on the game with an assist. As for Ozil….

The picture above shows two of the most talented attacking midfielders in the business. One was acquired for a fortune last season and he galvanized the squad at the start of his Arsenal career before injuries and a loss of form took its toll on him. This season, Mesut Ozil has been playing ‘out of position’ drifting from the wings and he hasn’t been able to influence games as much as he would have liked. When he played in his favored No. 10 role against Aston Villa, the fans saw a beast that bossed the midfield and he made his presence felt. In the next game against Tottenham, he was back to wing duties, just to accommodate Arsenal’s poster boy, Jack Wilshere.

Wilshere has been tipped for great things and his performances in the 2010/11 season rightly earned him the Young Player of the Year award that season. However, injuries have been a constant thorn in Wilshere’s flesh and it’s good to see him getting some consistent game time but bar the Manchester City game, Wilshere hasn’t really hit the heights expected of him. And when you think that a player like Ozil, and to some extent, Aaron Ramsey, have been ‘sidelined’ to allow Jackie Boy blossom, it becomes somewhat puzzling.

Just when we thought Wilshere was going to make his mark on the game, Santi Cazorla threaded an inch-perfect square ball to the English maestro but his first touch let him down, allowing Petr Cech to smother the ball. Besides that Wilshere opening, Arsenal’s next clear attempt on goal was a late Lukas Podolski shot that was parried by the Czech goalie.

Then the case of Cesc Fabregas, a player that wanted to join Arsenal following his fallout with the FC Barcelona but Arsene Wenger chose not to sign his prodigal son due to the wealth of talent at his disposal and in particular, Mesut Ozil. In fairness to Wenger, the team was to be built around Ozil, there was a Ramsey that was also indispensable and of course, there was Jack Wilshere. So Cesc opted for Jose Mourinho and his hordes and in seven games for the Blues, Fabregas has created seven assists for his teammates, with four of them going to Diego Costa. Ozil, Ramsey and Wilshere have created a combined tally of three assists, with each player creating just one.

So in another ‘big game’ where Arsenal expected its creator-in-chief to turn up, Mesut Ozil wilted away. He wasn’t alone in this. The Champions League hat-trick hero, Danny Welbeck, wasn’t given a sniff at goal by the Chelsea rearguard and he can consider himself lucky to have remained on the pitch following his two-footed lounge at Fabregas. Arsenal’s leading goalscorer, Alexis Sanchez, was peripheral on the flanks and his only noteworthy highlight was knocking Thibaut Courtois out cold.

At the back, the Gunners were let down by a usually reliable and dependable Laurent Koscielny. He stuck his foot out to impede Eden Hazard for the first goal and a lofted Cesc Fabregas pass evaded him and his defensive partner, Per Mertesacker, allowing Diego Costa to dink the ball over Wojciech Szczesny to seal the game.

Another big away game, another defeat. Arsenal will still play at Old Trafford, Etihad Stadium and Anfield. Sadly, we might know the outcomes. I just hope we improve this season, getting 10 points from a possible 21 isn’t a good start from the Gunners. If the Gunners want to challenge for the title this season, they’d get to get as much points from the folks at the bottom half, as well as their title rivals.

Sayonara.

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