What a week!
By Tim Charlesworth
Well wow! That is as close to a perfect week as you will get as an Arsenal supporter. We all tend to get carried away with wild optimism after a victory, and doom and gloom following a defeat. So let’s step back a bit and have a look at what happened:
On Saturday we rode our luck and won a match that we could easily have drawn or lost. This seemed to boost the confidence of the team. It also helped their development. Cazorla and le Coq are irreplaceable players and so we need to learn to play in a completely different way without them. This takes time. Saturday was an important staging post on that learning journey. Ramsey started to show that he can offer something different, but not necessarily inferior, in midfield. The whole team started to learn to cover the enormous Coquelin-shaped-hole in our midfield (no one individual can be expected to do it).
To make this result even better, all our potential rivals lost or drew and left us effectively top of the league (I am very confident that we won’t finish behind Leicester). Because no team is dominating, the league position, even at this early stage, is more significant than normally. If we can hang on near the top of the league for the next ten games, I think we have a very good chance of being champions.
The away trip to Olympiakos was slightly odd in hindsight. In the end, we did it comfortably, and the third goal totally killed the contest. But let’s not underestimate the great achievement that this win represents. Olympiakos are not a first (or even second) rank team in European terms. However, they are no mugs, and winning 2-0 away (let alone 3-0) is always a difficult thing in the CL.
To make it even harder, there was a hostile home crowd, and they had as much interest in the game as Arsenal, as they were also playing for qualification. So this was genuinely a great achievement against the odds. Maintaining our incredible record of 16 consecutive group qualifications is also significant. The whole thing will be good for team confidence and our status in the European game.
It has been a funny old group campaign, but in the end our luck evened out and we had two fabulous victories (Bayern home and Olympiacos away). We have also avoided the dreaded Thursday fixtures, which will help our league campaign. Experience suggests that we will now only have two more European games this season (I am only half joking), and so the overall fixture burden is considerably reduced compared to the possibility of a Europa Cup campaign. The next CL game is now so far away that its conceivable that Coquelin will play! Less fixture congestion is important for a team with lots of injuries in the squad facing a tough league campaign.
So what of our future prospects? There can be no doubt that we will miss Coquelin, and there is nothing that we can do about this. Before the recent run of injuries, I had as us slight favourites to win the Premiership. Now the odds are slightly against, but I don’t think things have changed dramatically. Let’s have a look at the ‘injury crisis’ and see how much damage it has really done to our chances:
1: Coquelin is irreplaceable and we will miss him.
2: I am sad for Cazorla, who is a lovely guy. However the Coq-Caz axis was already broken. It is conceivable that we will even see his injury as a blessing if Ramsey comes good (and stays fit)
3: Sanchez’s injury is annoying, but it is short-term, and this kind of setback is inevitable for this type of player.
4: Walcott and Ramsey have both recovered from their short-term injuries. Bellerin and Koscielny look OK.
So, overall, it is only the Coquelin injury that is a real disaster. And in an 11 man game with 25 man squads, I struggle to believe that one bad injury (for about one third of a season) will totally wreck our season. There are a number of reasons to be cheerful:
Ramsey can offer something different in midfield. His defensive work is also a little better than he is usually given credit for. He is very fit and energetic, and uses that energy to get back as well as forward. He is not the same type of player as Cazorla, but he could be equally valuable for the team, and is showing signs that this will be the case (please stay fit!). He is certainly adding to our attacking threat.
Flamini is doing well. He is no Coquelin, and his defensive discipline looks a little wayward. However, it is not fair to compare him to Coquelin, as few players in the world can do what Coquelin does. Flamini is doing as well as we can expect him to.
If Wilshere can return soon, then the midfield 3 of Wilshere, Ramsey and Flamini/Chambers may be good enough to keep us going until Coq-Caz returns. Arteta and Rosicky could also make contributions.
Campbell’s form is very encouraging. It looks like we are going to need him to play well, and he is doing so. Being picked over the Ox for Olympiacos is no mean achievement for this player, and his performance very much justified it. Expect to see a lot of him in coming weeks.
Ozil’s form continues to be good. However gloomy we are about our injury crisis, Ozil on form gives us a good chance in every match we play.
Walcott is looking like he is coming back to his best. It is important to have 2 number nines in the squad for rotation and ‘bench impact’ purposes. It looks like we are getting back to this position.
Koscielny’s form is excellent. He looks like he is taking a bit more responsibility for coming out of defence and attacking the areas of the pitch that Coquelin would normally cover.
The longer we go with Petr Cech in goal, the better he looks. I don’t pretend to be an expert on goalkeeping, but he looks to me like he is playing very well. Without Coquelin, we will be vulnerable to counter-attacks through the middle, and vulnerable in the air (especially if Giroud is not playing). This will undoubtedly lead to more shots for the opposition, as we saw in 13-14, and the first part of 14-15 (i.e. before Coquelin got his place in the team). The presence of Cech may mean that a smaller proportion of those shots end up as goals.
Don’t expect miracles over the next two months. There will be setbacks, but if we can stay in touch with the top of the league until Coquelin (and Cazorla?) return, I expect us to pull ahead and win in the final 10 games of the season. So far so good. The away game v Man City, game 37, scheduled for 7th May 2016, looks like it might be decisive.
Giroud is doing really well. Lots of commentators are reluctant to admit this, having slagged him off in the past. Vardy excepted, he has been the most effective no 9 in the English game this season.
There are some minor disappointments to balance against these encouraging signs, but none of them are too concerning:
- The Ox is still failing to live up to his talent. However, he also looks like he could come good at any time. A run of form in the second half of the season could be very valuable.
- Gabriel has looked a little disappointing (particularly poor mistakes led to goals for Norwich and Bayern) He has failed to dislodge Mertesacker from the team. However, this is more due to Mertesacker playing well than Gabriel playing badly.
- Chambers still looks a bit short of what we can expect from him, but not disastrously so. He may just be short of game time.
- Debuchy continues to disappoint. Is this due to a lack of game time, or is there long-term decline here? Only a significant injury to Bellerin will allow us to find out now. Personally, I would rather not know!
- I am still looking forward to the first proper cameo from the Jeff
There is no doubt that November was disappointing. The injuries are serious setbacks, but they are not fatal, and our bogey month is over. At the start of the season it looked like one of us, Chelsea or Man City. Now it looks like us or Man City. Every time I look at the league table I think Man Utd have a chance. Every time I see them play, I am reminded of how awful they really are. The totts look good, but surely not good enough?
It’s a shame that we missed the opportunity to establish a decisive lead over Man City, who are surely our closest rivals, but we are still ahead of them, so let’s not be too down-hearted. Above all, let’s enjoy a great week. It may not have been our most flamboyant or spectacular week, but in terms of ‘much-needed’ results it was perfect!
- Daily Telegraph apologises unreservedly to Arsenal Wenger!!!!!!!!!
- The Coquelin replacement deal is done and dusted. “Fans already love him”, and Alexis recovers in superfast time.