Arsenal Back In The Title Race? (w/ Player Ratings)

Arsenal (3) – (0) Tottenham Hotspur
Van Persie (42′, 62′) Fabregas (42′)
The Emirates Stadium, London

Before the game, I was thinking that this match was Arsenal’s chance to prove they are worthy title contenders.

After the big disappointment of throwing away leads both at AZ Alkmaar and West Ham United last week, the North London Derby was the perfect chance to see if Arsenal had learnt their lesson and could close out games, keep a clean sheet and obviously get all 3 points.

And Arsenal delivered.

Tottenham had impressed in the opening games of the Premier League season but have recently been going off the boil, and Arsenal simply had too much for them today and completely dominated for large portions of the game. And it wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say Arsenal could, and should, have won 6 or 7 nil.

The first half was a little cagey and Arsenal’s best chance came to Fabregas who saw his left foot shot saved well from Gomes after some quality work from Arshavin. As you would expect, Arsenal were pulling the strings and Almunia’s comeback was mainly uneventful, bar having to collect a few crosses.

Bendtner came off with an injury and was replaced by Eduardo after 36 minutes, after the Dane looked lively and was having a decent game.

And on 42 minutes, the game sparked into life.

A quick throw in from Sagna on the right was returned to him by Fabregas, and the Frenchman’s low cross was inch perfect as he found the in-form Robin Van Persie who darted in front of Bassong and nicked the ball under Gomes for the opening goal.

I have to say that Van Persie has been a revelation this season, and his game has adapted and improved greatly. From a natural second striker, he has become the target man we’ve needed and his passing, vision, control and team play has been just fantastic this year. Credit to his ability and desire to change the way he plays for the team, and as well as having a rocket shot from distance his positioning in the box shows real intelligence.

After that, Tottenham collapsed and a moment of brilliance from Cesc Fabregas almost blew the roof off the Emirates.

Straight from kick off, a lazy pass from Palacios was intercepted by Van Persie and the ball rolled into the path of Fabregas who started running at Spurs. He breezed past Palacios, nutmegged Ledley King and brushed off Corluka before coolly placing his shot into the near corner.

A stunning goal!

Then Arsenal saw out the remaining few minutes and led in the North London Derby at half time.

As the second half kicked off, the big question was how would Arsenal perform after conceding similar leads over the last seven days.

But after 20 minutes, Van Persie essentially killed the game off.

Eduardo had the ball on the right wing and was hacked down by Assou-Ekotto but referee Mark Clattenberg waved play on. Sagna stopped, played on and then crossed for Van Persie who tapped in from close range after Bassong and King could deal with it.

With the game dead and buried, it was a case of making sure Arsenal could show that they had learnt from previous games and keep Tottenham at bay and whether Arsenal could keep a rare clean sheet.

Eduardo and Diaby had chances to make it 4 but were guilty of profligacy and the scoreline stayed a only 3.

Arsene Wenger was clearly animated on the touchline despite the 3 goal margin and this was hugely encouraging to see.

We was absolutely livid as he was shouting instructions to his midfield to sit back and make sure that we didn’t concede another sloppy and unnecessary goal.

Obviously the last 2 competitive games and the dropped points have been discussed behind closed doors and while this is only the start, it is good to see that Wenger finally realises that we’re guilty of taking our foot off the pedal and are prone to throwing away leads. If Arsenal are even going to be considered real title contenders then closing out games is a vital part of fighting at the top of the table.

And fortunately, it looks like this issue is being addressed.

There is obviously a long way to go this season but sitting second in the league (with a game in hand after this weekend) is encouraging to see after a quarter of the season.

And from a usually pessimistic Arsenal fan, the signs at the moment are positive.

We have players such as Rosicky, Walcott, Denilson and Nasri to return and push for starting places, and with Vermaelen and Arshavin this season then we might just have that extra quality we need to really challenge.

If we’re near the top of the league come Spring, then that West Ham game might just have been a blessing in disguise.

Player & Referee Ratings

Manuel Almunia: 6/10
Mainly had to deal with crosses which generally, he did okay with. He did drop a couple and luckily the mistakes didn’t prove to be decisive. Was asked to make a one or two routine saves which were dealt with, but on the whole was a stroll in the park.

Bacary Sagna: 9/10
Excellent today. Full of running, dealt with the aerial threat from Peter Crouch well and more importantly his crossing was paramount in today’s win, with two quality deliveries for Van Persie’s brace. Robbie Keane drifted out to the left a lot throughout the game and didn’t get so much as a look in.

William Gallas: 8/10
On the whole, solid but made a couple of errors – one of which was giving away a freekick on the edge of the box for a handball. Did make an excellent last ditch interception though when Robbie Keane was through on goal to prevent and almost certain goal.

Thomas Vermaelen: 9/10
Sensational again. In the air he is colossal and dealt with most of Tottenham’s crosses with ease. Was extremely unfortunate to get a booking when he clearly won the ball fairly from Corluka.

Gael Clichy: 8/10
Up and down the left side throughout the entire game and looked very comfortable. Passing and decision-making seems to have improved and hopefully he can keep this consistency over the season.

Alex Song: 8/10
Excellent again and covered a lot of ground. Was quick to close down any Tottenham players and his distribution was top draw. Even managed to pull of some skills while beating players and was very commanding.

Abou Diaby: 5/10
For me, far to sloppy in possession and his unwillingness to track back was disappointing. I kept an eye on him closely and his positioning is poor as well. The passage of play which summed up his performance for me was when he had the ball on the edge of the box, tried to stupidly beat a player and then lost possession. Tottenham then proceeded to have their most threatening move of the match. If Tottenham would have scored from that, I, like Arsene, would have been f*cking livid. Also somehow managed to ‘head’ the ball with his shoulder from 2 yards out and with the goal gaping.

Cesc Fabregas: 9/10
Along with Song was very commanding and controlled midfield with ease. Again, he was pulling the strings with some glorious passing and really should have had more assists when Diaby and Eduardo spurned good chances created by the captain. Great ability and desire to score that stunning goal and it was hugely deserved.

Andrei Arshavin: 7/10
Not his best game, and was only influential at times but did oozed that quality in everything he did.

Robin Van Persie: 8/10
Scored two poachers goals, and technically set-up the other for Fabregas. Clever movement in the box and his desire to score was there for everyone to see. Not everything came off for him, but delivered when it mattered.

Nicklas Bendtner: 7/10
Looked lively when he was on but his game was cut short after only half an hour.

Eduardo Da Silva: 7/10 (Replaced Bendtner on 36′)
Did well when he came on and I would have given him an 8 or 9 if he scored his chances, which you would have to say in Eduardo terms are sitters – that’s how high we all regard his finishing. But still finding his feet and will get better with more games under his belt.

Emmanuel Eboue: 6/10 (Replaced Arshavin on 78′)
Didn’t really have much to do, but did release Ramsey with a great ball near the end of the match.

Aaron Ramsey: 6/10 (Replaced Van Persie on 86′)
Not enough time to make an impact, although had a glorious chance to play in Eduardo but failed to beat the solitary defender.

Referee – Mark Clattenberg: 4/10
I have to mention the referee because I thought he was awful. Although Arsenal won, he was shocking poor in my opinion. He failed to book David Bentley for a blatant handball, and then minutes later failed to issue a card after a terrible (and late) challenge on Vermaelen. It was a highly dangerous tackle and his studs were up and it could have seriously injured Thomas. I understand that he may have tried to ‘keep the game flowing’ but his reluctance to blow his whistle was, at times, ridiculous. And how half the Tottenham players didn’t get booked and Vermaelen did for a clearly good tackle is beyond me.

Have Arsenal Learned Anything This Season?

West Ham United (2) – (2) Arsenal
Van Persie (16′), Gallas (37′)
Upton Park, London

Well that was nothing short of a shambles.

The game against West Ham was literally a game of two halves.

In the first half, Arsenal were energetic, eager and moving the ball around well. We got two goals and only a ‘typical’ Arsenal performance of old would deny us of all 3 points.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened.

The second half typified everything I hated about Arsenal over the last few seasons, and the main reason for my ranting.

A lack of application, desire and passion.

And to let slip a two-goal lead when you’re a team that is challenging for the Premier League title is unforgivable. Seriously, which other Top Five club would collapse like that?

It happened so often last season – remember the 4-4 game at the Emirates against Spurs?

The second half was awful to watch, and every Arsenal fan could see it coming.

Arsenal thought they had won the game, were in cruise control and we’ve seen it time and again – if a team does manage to score against us, just like West Ham did, then because we’ve slowed down the tempo we struggle to get back into the game if we need to step it up.

And that’s exactly what happened.

It was all West Ham in the second half and we had no answers.

Arsene Wenger must have been absolutely furious in throwing away 2 points. There were a lot of ifs and buts, like if Van Persie’s last minute header had gone in, or Fabregas’ stunning 30 yard shot had flew in instead of shaving the post, but the fact of the matter is we were shockingly poor in the second half.

West Ham probably should of had a penalty when Gallas swiped at Parker in the box, and Song had no excuse when he stupidly kicked out at Cole to concede that penalty.

And we have to mention Vito Mannone’s awful ‘save’ which gifted West Ham their opener.

I know the kid is young and still learning but that incident changed the game. The only saving grace is that Almunia probably would have let the freekick in anyway and Mannone did single-handedly earn us 3 points away at Fulham.

I guess I’m still seething because I would have loved to write about United’s defeat and Arsenal catching up with them but I’m just annoyed at not taking advantage.

Thoughts And Observations On The Season So Far…

Well a quarter of the season has officially gone by and it might be a cliché but it does look like one of the most open Premier League seasons for a long time.

Chelsea lost to Aston Villa yesterday, Liverpool lost to an in-form Sunderland, Manchester United were extremely lucky (again) at home and Arsenal cruised past Birmingham City.

So United are top, Chelsea second and Arsenal fourth, although we are only 4 points off top spot with a game in hand.

Here are my thoughts on the ‘top sides’ and what this means for Arsenal:

Manchester United

From where I’m standing, Manchester United have been extremely lucky at home this season. It borders on the ridiculous.

They have played five home games, won four and drawn one. Every win has come from a solitary goal and everyone one of those games was very fortuitous. And you can even say that for the game they drew.

Against Birmingham, they won 1-0 but Birmingham shaved the post and hit the bar. Then we have the Arsenal game, where Almunia and Diaby literally threw away the points and United somehow got all three despite Arsenal dominating the majority of the match. They beat Manchester City with a 97th minute winner and the same injury-time rule applied when Rio Ferdinand’s retarded younger brother decided to score an own goal to claim a draw against Sunderland.

And yesterday, Bolton had enough chances to steal a point in the closing minutes but Cahill and Knight’s headed opportunities were wasted.

United fans will argue that a sign of champions is the ability to win matches they don’t play well in and to grind out results, but you would have to believe that the longer the season goes on teams will realise that if you attack United at Old Trafford then you can get something. Manchester City and Bolton in particular were very negative but still could have got something – and you wonder what would have happened if they took the game to the home side. City only attacked once they went a goal down, and Bolton when they were two goals down.

They may be top at the moment, but there are definitely weaknesses in that side. With Ronaldo they had that aura of invincibility but without him they struggle to establish a settled midfield line-up. If they do end up winning the league come May then the other top sides should be ashamed.

Chelsea

Well they had a sensational start to the season.

They won their first six games and looked in cruise-control but since then they’ve lost 2 games from 3, losing to Wigan and Villa away, and beating Liverpool in between.

Under Ancelotti they do seem to be playing much better football. The two fullbacks have license to attack and they play two up top with Drogba and Anelka, and Drogba in particular is in great form with 7 goals already this season. And unfortunately for the rest of the league, he seems to be focused on scoring goals and (bar a lapse against Liverpool) cutting out his histrionics.

Chelsea do seem to have a slight weakness from set-pieces though, with both of their defeats including unmarked players (who happen to be opposing centre-backs) scoring free headers. Encouraging for the free-scoring Gallas and Vermaelen when Arsenal meet Chelsea on November 29th.

Objectively though, you could say that against Villa they were pretty unlucky because they had more than enough chances to equalise and probably win the game.

And where have we heard that before?

Liverpool

What can you say about the Merseysiders?

It’s hard to take their title-challenge seriously – not because they don’t have the ability – but just because it’s so long since they won it. There’s no doubt they are a top quality team but when it comes to a long 38 game season they just seem to come up short every time.

They lost Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid in the summer and with Lucas they just haven’t found a suitable replacement. There’s the old adage that they rely far too much on Gerrard and Torres and while it’s too easy to agree with that you’d have to say it’s true. Torres and Gerrard were both missing and they had nothing to offer against Sunderland.

On thing that bugs me about Liverpool is Rafa Benitez. Is he the only manager in the entire league who doesn’t celebrate a goal? When Liverpool score, he looks down in his notepad and writes something down. He’s like a headmaster or something.

Manchester City

Well based on their sheer buying power this season, you have to consider them a top side now, even if you don’t want to.

They’ve only lost one game this year, and that was against a fortunate United side. They’ve had 3 big tests this season, and they beat Arsenal, put in an excellent performance at Old Trafford (without Adebayor) and drew against Aston Villa. They have so much attacking talent so they will always be a threat. Defensively they are much improved with Toure and Lescott, although the latter is taking time to settle, and they have Shay Given who is a top class goalkeeper.

If you want to nick-pick Micah Richards at right-back can sometimes be a liability but with the personnel in their side they have more than enough to brush aside the majority of the lower sides in the league. Another big advantage they have is that they don’t have the distraction of Europe this season.

And with the top sides like Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea losing games already they will believe that it is an open title race.

The big question is like Liverpool, do City have the mentality to go on and win the league and can they handle the pressure at the business end of the season. It is new territory for both the players and manager so it will be very interesting to see how they cope come March, April and May.

And finally, Arsenal…

The summer brought in a few major changes, the biggest being the new 4-3-3 formation, the addition of Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax and the departure of Kolo and Adebayor to Manchester Citeh.

Thomas Vermaelen has been sensational this year, and on top of being a brilliant defender he’s scored a lot of important goals already this season. He’s a threat from set-pieces (which is a great addition to our style of play) and adds some steel to the team. And his determination is fantastic and can only be a positive influence on the squad.

The formation change was subject to a lot discussion and debate and I was surprised more than anyone when it was actually used this season. Wenger’s been using 4-4-2 ever since he came to the club so it was a bit of a shock. But to his credit, Arsene’s willingness to change things looks like to have worked.

We’re not in top gear right now, but despite our rocky form in Manchester we’ve won every other game, have a flawless record at home and scored a record number of goals, apparently.

I also have to mention the form of Alex Song this year. He has really impressed me and along with Denilson has really stepped up his game. Unfortunately, Denilson is injured for a while and Diaby is his replacement. I’m not convinced about Diaby (as regular readers will know) but hopefully Nasri’s impending return might help the situation. Arsene could also play Rosicky in that role as well – at least he makes an attempt to tackle.

There’s no doubt we can unlock any defence but it’s our defensive frailties which will be the biggest factor in whether we win anything this season. With our attacking talent our goal-scoring record speaks for itself but we are sometimes prone to make mistakes at vital times. Almunia and Diaby were quite frankly idiotic against Manchester United, in a game we threw away the points – the big question is can this Arsenal team take the pressure? Old Trafford is a fortress and when questions were asked of Arsenal we crumbled. Our performances at Stamford Bridge and Anfield this season will be a measure of what this Arsenal squad can achieve this season.

The encouraging thing is though that despite already racking up two defeats this season, we are only 4 points off United with a game in hand. So hopefully there’s more to come once we’ve got everyone back fit and we’re at the top of our game.

There’s certainly a lot to be optimistic about this season, for a lot of different reasons.

That Was Absolutely Fabregas! (w/ Player Ratings)

Arsenal (6) – (2) Blackburn Rovers
Vermaelen (17′), Van Persie (33′), Arshavin (37′),
Fabregas (57′), Walcott (75′), Bendtner (89′)
The Emirates Stadium, London

Well despite going behind twice Arsenal showed great spirit and in the end comfortably won the game 6-2, with goals from 6 different goalscorers.

The opening goal from Blackburn really set the pace for the match and because they got it so early you almost expecting an onslaught from Arsenal. After only 3 minutes, a long freekick from Paul Robinson flew into our penalty area and Steven Nzonzi got ahead of Vermaelen and his header looped over Mannone and went in off the bar.

A quite fortuitous goal, but one we always seem to concede now and then.

After that it was attack against defence.

Arsenal were really pushing forward and minutes later a nice cross from Arshavin found Fabregas in the middle who looped a header over Robinson but it hit the bar.

Then on 17 minutes Arsenal got what they deserved.

A great interception by Vermaelen won back possession and despite being fouled, the referee played a decent advantage and waved play on. The ball found its way to Fabregas who fed Vermaelen who needed no second invitation to shoot, and he rifled a stunning left-footed shot right into the bottom corner.

Arsene has made some great signings in his 13 years at Arsenal, but this guy has to be right up there.

Fabregas was running the show at this point and he had a couple of decent long range efforts saved well by Robinson. But as Arsenal piled forward Blackburn took the lead again, this time from a well executed counter attack.

Everyone’s favourite player Diouf played a 50 yard ball to Brett Emerton, who ran 20 yards with the ball without a challenge and played in David Dunn. He cut inside and pulled the trigger and the ball deflected off Gallas and into the net. A lucky goal and there was nothing Mannone could have done about it.

That goal seemed to just galvanise Arsenal and Fabregas made another two assists – one for Van Persie and one for Arshavin – to put Arsenal in front before half time.

In the second half, Arsenal carried on from where they left off and an already fantastic performance from Fabregas was capped off with a stunning left-footed half-volley on 57 minutes. 3 assists and a beautiful goal, not bad for an hours work!

Walcott came on for Rosicky on 69 minutes for his eagerly-awaited return and he only took 6 minutes to make an impact and score a well taken goal.

Fabregas again fed in Arshavin on the left hand side and the Russian ran down the wing before playing Fabregas back in just outside the area. But instead of shooting, Fabregas just ushered the ball on to Walcott on the right who placed a shot right into the bottom corner.

And that signalled the end of Fabregas’ matching winning performance, and along with Arshavin they were replaced by Aaron Ramsey and Nicklas Bendtner.

In all honesty you didn’t notice Arshavin and Fabregas were no longer on the pitch, due to the sheer dominance of Arsenal. Ramsey played particularly well in his 20 minute cameo, creating excellent chances for Bendtner, Walcott and Van Persie. and it was his pass which setup Arsenal’s final goal which was another stunning strike from Bendtner.

In the end, you couldn’t ask for more from a football match. Plenty of goals, a great performance and all 3 points.

Player Ratings

Vito Mannone: 7/10
Despite conceding twice, I honestly can’t fault him for either of the goals. The first was a looping header which was – in my eyes anyway – very fortuitous, and the second was a heavy deflection. After the first goal he came out confidently for crosses and long balls so at least he learns from previous incidents. I don’t know what it is about this young goalkeeper but I feel confident when he’s playing – even more so when Almunia or Fabianski are playing. Is that strange?

Bacary Sagna: 8/10
Full of running yet again and solid at the back. Like Clichy, gives Arsenal that extra outlet when attacking and put in a superb performance in today.

William Gallas: 7/10
Maybe I’m being harsh, but I wasn’t too happy with his handling of Dunn for Blackburn’s second goal. We all know Dunn is right-footed so to not force him wide was a strange decision I thought. Unlucky in the way the ball came off him to finish in the net but maybe it shouldn’t have got that far in the first place.

Thomas Vermaelen: 9/10
Excellent yet again. First to everything and Di Santo didn’t even have a sniff. Was unfortunate for the first goal but after that didn’t put a foot wrong. Great determination and desire to create the opening for his equalising goal and that strike was sumptuous. He really does give Arsenal that extra dimension, with his threat in the air and his long-range shooting ability. Could be one of the highest scoring defenders since Fernando Hierro. Possibly.

Gael Clichy: 7/10
Another solid performance, but still a bit rash when trying to win the ball high up the pitch. Supported Arshavin and Rosicky well on the left hand side.

Alex Song: 8/10
Another good performance from Song. Won the ball convincingly, always covered key areas and his passing was good today too.

Abou Diaby: 5/10
Too wasteful and indecisive. I never see him making a decent effort to help out the defence and when on the ball he insists on taking far too many touches. Missed a sitter when presented with an open goal to shoot at and I can’t count how many times he loses the ball when he’s not even under any pressure. Was lucky that everyone else was playing so well.

Cesc Fabregas (Captain): 10/10
What else can you say about his performance today? Just when you thought that he might be going off the boil he shows us all what he’s all about. 4 cute assists and an emphatic left-footed piled driver on the half volley. Was so good and made such an impact he was taken off with 20 minutes to go.

Tomas Rosicky: 7/10
Got involved in the play well and always wanted the ball. Also put in a solid performance defensively, making some decent tackles and closing down players. Came agonisingly close with a 20 yard effort which could have easily went into the top corner and can be happy with his 29th birthday.

Robin Van Persie: 9/10
I’ve been very impressed with Van Persie’s performances recently. Out of all the players, Robin has had the biggest change thrust upon him playing in the central role of the 3 attackers but he has really adapted well. He’s added new skills to his repertoire, and now holds the ball up well, links the play well and is much more intelligent in his passing. Totally deserved his goal and will be a massive player for Arsenal this season.

Andrei Arshavin: 8/10
Everything this guy does with a football just oozes quality and today was no different. His passing, movement and ability on the ball was decisive and took his goal very well.

Theo Walcott (Replaced Rosicky on 69′): 7/10
An ideal return for Theo, who scored a well taken goal just minutes after coming on. Almost added a second when played in by Ramsey but his scuffed effort was scrambled off the line.

Nicklas Bendtner (Replaced Arshavin on 76′): 8/10
Looked bright when he came on and always wanted to be involved in the play. Took his goal superbly and hopefully that goal will be the start of a few for him this season.

Aaron Ramsey (Replaced Fabregas on 76′): 8/10
It would be no exaggeration to say he did more in 20 minutes than Diaby did in the whole game. Created 4 fantastic opportunities for his team-mates with some great through balls and was composed and confident on the ball. Shows far more intelligence (as well as desire to help defensively) which is why I am stunned Diaby is ahead of Ramsey in pecking order. Ramsey is the far better option on every level.