Happy New Year everyone. A few days ago Jack Wilshere tweeted: “Hope 2014 is the year I get my hands on the Premier League trophy!”
It could well be and one of the reasons could be down to a few very important wins in December, which saw Arsenal end the year top of the league.
After comfortably defeating Hull City at home in the midweek clash attention turned to a big match against high- flying Everton. The Toffees were in good form and have changed their style of play dramatically under Roberto Martinez.
The first 40 minutes was our most difficult of the season. We aren’t use to teams coming to the Emirates and completely bossing the game and you have to give them credit for that. In the second half we got our act together and with ten minutes left Mesut Ozil fired in his fifth goal of the season. It would have been a massive win, to psychologically go seven points ahead of Manchester City and Chelsea knowing we were facing them in our upcoming games could have been vital.
However a lack of concentration meant we conceded a few minutes later and Everton got the point they deserved. The Blues have only lost two games all season but under the circumstances we should have seen out the game. Was it one point gained or two points lost? Only time will tell but I fear the latter.
On to the Napoli match and our task was simple, avoid a three nil defeat and we were through to the knockout stages. Despite all the talk from Arsene on how we would go there and try to win, we were very conservative in our approach and that style has and will never suit us, not for 90 minutes.
We lost the game two nil; although we were never in any real danger of going out considering they scored their second with the last kick of the game. But Dortmund beating Marseille meant that we finished second in the group and had a much higher chance of facing one of Europe’s elite sides.
It was no great surprise when a few weeks later we drew Bayern Munich. Some fans understandably were frustrated that we ended up coming second and are now having to face the European champions. However I wasn’t one of them. The way I see it is when you play in the Champions League, the format of the competition means that you will have to end up playing at least one of the top sides, over two legs, in one of the rounds. Beat Bayern and it will give us belief and momentum. Lose and we can concentrate on the league, I don’t think it’s a bad situation to be in by any means.
Two days later we faced Man City and for the first time since the Aston Villa debacle you sensed some anxiety around the club. Not many expected anything at City and that wasn’t just down to their incredible home form. The fixture list had been unkind to us and whilst most of their key players sat out their dead rubber Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, we were fighting in Napoli to remain in the competition.
I spoke in the last blog about how we needed to approach the big games in a fearless manner. In a way I think we did that at City but ultimately it was one game to many. We scored three goals but conceded six and our legs in that last ten minutes had clearly gone. On the day sloppy touches and stray passes cost us more than anything. I don’t think it was a defeat that we should dwell on too much. We knew the reasons we lost the game and could now look forward to nine days off before a big derby at home to Chelsea.
After some good team bonding at our Christmas party, the Chelsea game came round pretty quickly. Our position at the top had now been overtaken by Liverpool and we knew that only a win would allow us first place at Christmas.
I think the first thing you have to say is the conditions for the match were not great at all and that combined with the way Mourinho set up to play meant getting the three points was always going to be difficult.
We had two good chances to win it at the end through Giroud but unfortunately he does seem to panic in front of goal in the big matches. We could also consider ourselves slightly unlucky that the referee missed a blatant penalty on Theo Walcott and red card for John Obi Mikel in the first half, which could have changed a lot. We have an awful record under Mike Dean and whilst others might look into it suspiciously I just think he’s a really poor official.
We were now into a really important period of the season. Three games in six days with two tough away fixtures. Ozil was going through a bit of a rough patch, Giroud hadn’t scored for months, Ramsey weeks, Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla all out of form and Koscienly injured. Make or break was probably a bit extreme but nevertheless a crucial few days.
That’s why after 68 minutes of the West Ham game at Upton Park you could not have been blamed for thinking “Here we go again”. Without a win in three games and potentially dropping down to fourth in the table, when a few weeks ago with ten minutes left against Everton we were on course for going seven points clear.
But this Arsenal side has character and big personalities and I think we saw that in the comeback against West Ham. In that last 20 minutes not only did we turn the game around but we did so in style. Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski were the stand out performers on the day but the whole team deserve great credit for what was a very important comeback.
Three days later it was Newcastle away at St James Park. The magpies had already beaten Man United, Chelsea and Tottenham in the league. Injuries meant we had no choice but to rotate the squad yet one man that remained in the starting eleven was Olivier Giroud. This surprised me but he repaid the managers faith in him by heading in his eight league goal of the season.
With twelve minutes left on the clock we took off Theo Walcott and replaced him with Carl Jenkinson in an attempt to hold on to our one nil win. That last twelve minutes were probably the longest of the season. We had completely lost control of the game and I feared that we went to shut out the opposition way too early.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Arsene make a change like that with the score at one nil and with so long left of the game. Yet in the end he was justified with his decision as Mertsersacker and Koscienly fended off everything that came their way and Newcastle’s only hope of scoring was through a bit of magic from Hatem Ben Arfa. I don’t think we would have been able to win that game in that way with any other team under the Emirates era and is a testament to the defensive qualities we can now rely upon.
After three very testing games things were once again looking healthy. We were back to top of the league and had answered some challenging questions. Our New Year’s Day fixture against Cardiff should have been a relatively comfortable fixture and we could then look forward to nine days off league action.
If there is one thing we should all know about the Premier League is there are no easy fixtures. Cardiff, who looked buoyed by the news that Ole Gunner Solskjaer was watching the fixture in the directors’ box, proved very difficult to break down. We weren’t at our sharpest and with a few minutes left looked like we were going to drop two crucial points, on a day that all our rivals had won.
This was until Nicklas Bendtner came off the bench and fired home the winner whilst injuring himself in the meantime. Whatever you think of Bendtner you have to give him credit. It’s not the first time he’s done this in his Arsenal career and after what I will call a few not so nice receptions he went off to heroes round of applause, which was great to see.
Our last gasp win at the Emirates on Wednesday meant we began 2014 top but just by one point and with other teams creeping up on us. We have a chance to strengthen the squad in the January market and it’s something I think we really need to do.
Before Bendtner got injured I think the large majority of us believed we needed a new striker. It looks like Nicklas could possibly contribute more then what we initially thought, which is great but we still need more. The way our system is suited we need someone who can hold the ball up, bring others in to play and get on the end of chances. Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski are better suited as wingers in this formation and can only be considered as emergency strikers.
The problem is the January market is not the time where any top strikers are going to be available and is why we should have done it in the summer. If you’re Athletico Madrid- top of the table and still in the Champions League then why are you going to want to sell your star striker? That’s why I think Diego Costa or any one of that class is completely impossible. I would love to be proved wrong because he’s exactly the type of striker I would like to see here but I think it’s unrealistic. Even if he has a release clause, he may not want to move when he’s so settled and in a World Cup year.
Other young and unproven strikers have been mentioned but realistically should we expect them to come in and contribute to a side with aspirations of winning the league? This is why I’m surprised that suggestions of Dimitar Berbatov have brought a pretty negative response. I’m not saying I want him to lead the line at Arsenal for years to come. But to bring in someone who has won two league titles, scored goals throughout his career, technically on a different level to any of the forwards we have and available for a realistic price is surely not a bad thing as a short-term option? It may even just be until the end of the season. People will ask questions over his motivation but I think the chance to win a Premiership medal and play with some top class players towards the latter of his career would appeal to Berbatov. It’s a signing I would welcome.
With Aston Villa, Fulham and Southampton to come in the league this month I think we should remain top by the end of January. Added to that a thrilling FA cup fixture against Spurs and all the transfer madness, I expect it to be an exciting month and look forward to writing the next blog at the start of February. See you then.