Friday, 3 November 2017

Hero Worship: Ian Wright

Every Arsenal fan knows Ian Wright. Of course you do, how can you possibly not? Even for a lot of fans today who never got to see the man play, we all know who he is. He's synonymous with Arsenal football club, nearly twenty years after he last donned the red and white shirt.

When I was a nipper, between 8 and 9 years old, I wanted to be Ian Wright. I wanted to physically become the man in every way possible. When my Dad and I would watch Arsenal on the tele, I would spend most of the game too close to the screen, burning out my retinas as I focused solely on Wright, his movement, his technique, his gait. I would spend days and weeks trying to perfect his moves on the playgrounds and playing fields of my school. Remember that famous shimmy and swivel against Spurs that left Clive Wilson for dead in 96? I spent close to a week destroying my shoes on the harsh black bitumen trying to master that against the other lads in my class. I'd deliberately dribble the ball into the corner, pretending I had 38,000 of the Highbury faithful on my back, as I turned my would-be defender before crossing the ball to Bergkamp. Only it wasn't the Dutch legend of course, but my mate Dan.

I would stay up at night, pouring over my limited collection of Arsenal magazines to read the match reports detailing Wright's exploits. I recoiled in horror once when I read that he'd been given a straight red card away to Nottingham Forest just before Christmas 1996. Surely not my Ian? He'd scored an equalising goal roughly an hour into the game but six minutes later he was given his marching orders. I thought, there's no way they've got this right. My 8 year-old self would have defended Wright to the death. Little did I know that he'd had a battle all game with Forest defender Nikola Jerkan and finally thought enough was enough. Wright planted his boot through Jerkan's left foot and the linesman caught him red handed, grassing Wrighty in to the ref. Arsenal went on to lose 2-1 that night, thanks to a Alf Inge Haaland last minute winner, but all of this only helped add to the Ian Wright mystique and strangely deepened my admiration for the man.

With my parents and siblings regularly hogging the TV to watch X Files or Gladiators in the evenings, I would gather all of my Corinthians big head figures and set them out in formation on the kitchen table. Wrighty would obviously take centre stage and I'd routinely use his figurine to smash Subbuteo balls across the table into a homemade goal. I'd even do the running commentary.

Wright passes to Bergkamp. who lays it off to Merson, who crosses for Wright at the back post, WHO VOLLEYS IT PAST SEAMAN TO WIN IT IN INJURY TIME FOR ARSENAL! (Yes, Seaman was in goal - he was the only goalie figure I had!)

And don't think for a second I haven't contemplated buying a new Ian Wight big head as an adult. I have...

Ahead of the World Cup in 98, my first proper international tournament I fully understood and invested in, I was lucky to own the official England Football Team annual. I would spent ages pouring over this book, reading all the player profiles and soaking up all of the information. Before this book I had really only ever known Arsenal. This was the England team, and here were my favourite Arsenal players as well! What was David Seaman doing wearing that crazy kit? How could he possibly play for two different teams, I would ask my Dad.

And then there was Ian, not just featured in the book but on the bloody cover, evading a tackle from a very young Fabio Cannavaro.

On a summer's evening in May 1997 I was at home and found myself watching England play South Africa at Old Trafford. I undoubtedly had my England annual spread on the floor in front of me, so I could look up the players mentioned on the screen. It was just a friendly, but as a kid I didn't really know what that meant. It was still England, so it mattered to me. And there was Ian, wearing number 9 and starting alongside Teddy Sheringham. Of course he only went on to score the winner didn't he? With 75 minutes played Wrighty controlled a flick-on from a Paul Gascoigne free kick, chesting it down before turning to smash it past Andre Arendse in the South African goal. England won the game 2-1 and I was absolutely beaming at my hero's involvement in the result.

Today Ian Wright turns 53 years-old. I owe him a lot as he was the responsible for a big chunk of the joy in my childhood. Him and Star Wars of course. I'm sad I never got to see him in the flesh, but glad I got to experience his legend in at least some way.

Happy Birthday Ian.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Magical Mesut: Everton vs Arsenal

Sunday 22 October 2017
Everton 2 Arsenal 5
Rooney 12', Niasse 90+3', Monreal 40', Ozil 53', Lacazette 74', Ramsey 90', Sanchez 90+5'

Arsenal finally recorded their first away win of the season with a comprehensive display at Goodison Park against an Everton team battling their own demons. Ronald Koeman's side have not enjoyed the greatest of starts and now find themselves in the relegation zone. When people give Arsenal grief about their start to the season, looking at a club like Everton helps put things in perspective.

Despite going 1-0 down to a Wayne Rooney wonder goal, Arsenal dominated the first half and deservedly drew level just before half time thanks to an opportunistic Nacho Monreal finish. In the second half Arsenal made no mistake of putting Everton to the sword, when Mesut Ozil headed home from a fine Alexis Sanchez cross to make it 2-1 after 53 minutes. Things got worse for the home side when they were reduced to ten men after Idrissa Gueye picked up his second yellow card. Arsenal took advantage of the extra space and proceeded to tear Everton apart, with Alexandre Lazazette and Aaron Ramsey finding the back of the net. However Petr Cech made a stupid mistake in injury time, gifting Oumar Niasse the easiest goal he'll ever score. It wouldn't be an Arsenal game without at least one comical error! There was still time for Arsenal to add one more, when Sanchez willed the ball into the back of the net, with a fine strike across goal to put Arsenal ahead 5-2. Overall the boss with be pleased with such a fantastic result, especially on his 68th birthday.

Here are my player ratings for the game:

Petr Cech (GK) - 6/10

The veteran was rarely troubled by Everton. He could do nothing about Rooney's superb strike but will be disappointed with how cheaply he gave away Everton's second to Niasse. To be fair to the Czech keeper, Monreal's back pass wasn't the best but Cech had time to deal with it and failed to do so. A poor effort and a blemish on an otherwise solid performance.

Per Mertesacker (CB) - 7/10

A fine display from the captain and he brought real confidence to the back line. As a unit they were rarely troubled by the experienced Rooney and youngster Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Mertesacker's pass to Xhaka that led to Everton's opening goal could have been avoided but the Swiss midfielder did have the option to knock it back to Per or Koscielny; I find it hard to blame the BFG for that one.

Laurent Koscielny (CB) - 7/10

Found himself in a forward position more often than he might be used to, and put one or two dangerous crosses in. Combined well with Mertesacker and Bellerin to snuff out Everton's attacks.

Nacho Monreal (CB) - 9/10

Two goals now in his last three Premier League games and his strike today was an important one. Arsenal should have been two or three goals to the good before Rooney put the Toffees ahead so it was vital Arsenal replied before half time. After a long range effort by Granit Xhaka troubled Everton keeper Jordan Pickford, it was Monreal who pounced on the rebound first and struck the ball cleanly to draw Arsenal level. A vital goal at a vital time. Defensively he was nearly perfect, although his pass to Cech for Everton's late consolation could have been better.

Hector Bellerin (RWB) - 7/10

Bellerin's movement down the right wing is always dangerous and he regularly gets into good positions but stills struggles with his delivery from time to time. He did pick out Sanchez with a great cross that the Chilean could only head wide. Otherwise he was his dependable self and Arsenal are lucky to have him in their toolbox.

Sead Kolasinac (LWB) - 7/10

Nothing too noteworthy for the beast from Bosnia today but still a quality, albeit quiet performance. Combined well with Sanchez on the left flank and never looked rattled.

Granit Xhaka (CM) - 6/10

It only takes one mistake to spoil an afternoon and fortunately for Xhaka, his blunder did not end up costing Arsenal the points. He felt he was fouled in the build-up to Rooney's opening goal but replays show that he was dispossessed by Gueye cleanly. He had the option to pass the ball away with his first touch but can only blame himself for what followed. In his defence he didn't make another mistake the rest of the game and recovered well to set up Monreal's equaliser, and then stung the crossbar late in the game. It's probably still rattling even now.

Aaron Ramsey (CM) - 8/10

Constantly finds himself in fantastic positions thanks to his brilliant movement and awareness off the ball. Sadly he doesn't regularly capitalise on this but justly earned his reward today with a well taken goal. His first touch to open up his body to lift the ball past Pickford reminded me of the Ramsey from 2013/14. Hopefully there are more goals to come from the Welshman.

Alexis Sanchez (AM) - 9/10

Arsene Wenger opted to deploy all three of his top men in attack and it was Sanchez who really benefited from having the mobile Lacazette and Ozil to link up with. The Chilean was instrumental in every attack and was rewarded for his industriousness. His assist for Ozil's goal that broke the deadlock was a carbon copy of a goal against Watford last season. For 90 minutes Sanchez did everything but find the net and when he received the ball with seconds left, you knew he was never going to pass up the opportunity to have one final attempt. He had the chance to offload the ball two or three times and as Everton pushed him wider and wider you thought, surely he's missed his chance to get a shot away. Sanchez delights in surprising us though and flashed an effort back across goal that Pickford was helpless to reach. It was a deserved goal for Alexis, the cherry on top of a great day's work and his best performance of the season so far.

Mesut Ozil (AM) - 9/10 (Man of the Match)

It was evident from the first minute that Ozil took his A-game to Merseyside. He had magic in his boots from the first whistle, and every pass he played was so deft and precise. The German playmaker combined with his teammates constantly and was the driving force behind everything positive with Arsenal's display. When he headed the Gunners into the lead early in the second half, his celebration told the full story; this was Ozil with a point to prove. Many of us, myself included, wrote him off after the Watford game last week. When he missed that chance to put the result beyond Watford's reach, he disappeared for the rest of the game. Today he stood up and put in one of his finest performances in an Arsenal shirt. He expertly picked out Lacazette to make it 3-1 and when he was substituted after 82 minutes, he was absolutely spent. Today he deserved the man of the match award and was the best player on the park.

Alexandre Lacazette (ST) - 8/10

With Everton down to ten men, Arsenal had to make sure the game was put to bed and Lacazette was on hand to do just that. On a swift break down the right flank, Ozil pulled it back to the Frenchman who made no mistake and buried it past Pickford to seal the result, and pick up his 5th Premier League goal. After having a superb chance blocked within the first ten minutes to put Arsenal ahead, Lacazette bided his time and never looked like missing when his next chance came.


Jack Wilshere - 7/10

After his seriously good outings in the Europa League, Wilshere was rewarded today with some Premier League gametime and took his opportunity. With Everton a man down and reeling, Wilshere came on in the 77th minute and pulled the strings instantly. He collected an assist after picking out Ramsey for his late goal, and it begs the question; after all these years, could a Wilshere-Ramsey midfield partnership be successful after all?

Francis Coquelin - N/A

Not enough time to impose himself on the game.


Despite going 1-0 down, this was the first time in a while I had so much fun watching Arsenal. The Gunners had 30 shots on goal, 14 of them on target and 67% possession in a dominant win. Everton were dreadful and looked totally absent tactics-wise but it was still so satisfying to put 5 goals past them, and it could have been a lot more if Pickford didn't have such a great first half. Arsenal must take confidence from this result and Wenger must continue to put faith in Ozil, Sanchez and Lacazette. Even if Ozil and Sanchez leave the club, be it in January or the summer, we must milk every goal and assist out of them whilst they're still on Arsenal's books.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Something Different: Tranmere v Chester

Saturday the 7th of October was Non League Day on the British football calendar, a day to celebrate community clubs and the English game at the local level. Every year it coincides with the international break and provides fans with elements of football that are sorely lacking in the glamorous world of the Premier League.

I traveled to the Wirral on the Friday night to stay with my friend Matt, a lifelong Tranmere Rovers fan. We went to Wembley together in mid May to see Tranmere take on Forest Green in the National League Playoff Final, which Tranmere sadly lost 3-1. Despite the result it was a fantastic day out in the Wembley sunshine and I was really struck by the passionate Tranmere fanbase. I was an honorary Rover that day but the experience really registered with me and when Matt suggested I come to another game, this time at Tranmere's home, I jumped at the chance.

And so Saturday came and we had a short stroll through Birkenhead to Prenton Park, an impressive stadium that has all the facilities of a club that should be in the Football League. Outside the ground I picked up a programme (as I always do), as well as an issue of Tranmere's fanzine Give Us An R. I had a quick browse of the club shop as well, buying a small pin badge for my jacket (I already had a Tranmere scarf from my Wembley trip). I'm really material when it comes to football fandom and was amazed that I had the willpower to resist buying a home shirt! We then joined the rest of the Super White Army, or SWA as they're affectionately known, for a pre-match pint before making our way to our seats.

As we got close to the turnstiles a group of young lads pulled us over for a quick chat on behalf of TranmereFanTV, a YouTube channel that records fan's reactions, player interviews and pre-match predictions and discussions. I quickly bowed out of being filmed as this was just my second Tranmere game but Matt had a good conversation with the guys, which you can watch below:

Once we got into the John King stand I couldn't believe the great seats we had, almost dead-on the halfway line, and that's why it pays going with a regular like Matt who knows the best vantage points of his home ground. I had leg room for days, just look at the photo below for proof!

Tranmere's opposition for the day were Chester FC, their local rivals, so the match had a bit more added spice than usual, it being a derby day and all. The Kop was to my left for the entire game, home to the loudest of the SWA and they came complete with a drum and trumpet too. It made for an incredible atmosphere, and was nothing like I'd experienced watching the Arsenal. The Chester fans at the opposite end were doing their best to sing and shout back but were drowned out almost entirely by the enthusiastic support in the Kop.

The game itself was an entertaining affair and Tranmere should have won convincingly but the resolute Chester defence held out for a 0-0 draw. The home side dominated every facet of the game and Chester rarely threatened, never seriously testing Tranmere keeper Scott Davies if memory serves me right. Tranmere on the other hand put Chester goalkeeper Alex Lynch to work, forcing him into a number of fine saves. The driving rain made conditions difficult but ultimately Tranmere couldn't take advantage and the points were shared. Chester, struggling this season in 21st position, will be very pleased with the result but Tranmere will have felt disappointed not to have secured all three points. However, despite lying in 15th place, the Rovers can take solace in their fine performance and their recent results indicate they are on the up at least, with 7 points in their last three games.

I'm not going to be go full-blown football hipster and say that watching a non league contest is better than going to a Premier League game. It's just different... and that's a good thing. You need variety in life and sometimes you need variety in football too. Arsenal obviously fill and satisfy my football needs but then I also love what a non league or lower league game can offer as well. I'm a bit of an old fashioned soul so going up to Tranmere and watching their modestly paid players give 100% in the pouring Liverpool rain, there's just something more honest about it all.

I'll definitely go again and now I always keep an eye out for the Tranmere score on a Saturday.

Monday, 12 June 2017

One To Watch: Ainsley Maitland-Niles

In the 76th minute of the Under-20 World Cup final in South Korea's Suwon World Cup stadium, Ainsley Maitland-Niles clapped the hands of the substituted Ademola Lookman and entered the fray of the most important football match of his young career thus far. 

Up to that point it had been quite a week for the 19 year-old Arsenal man. On Thursday came the news that Maitland-Niles will make the jump from the academy to the first team to start the 2017/18 season. There wasn't much time to celebrate though, as Sunday brought about England's participation in the Under-20 World Cup final, as they faced off against a spirited Venezuela side. Maitland-Niles featured in midfield as a substitute and helped settle the young English side to see out a historic 1-0 victory, capturing the biggest international title in youth football and the first global success our country has experienced since 1966. A pretty remarkable few days for Ainsley all told.

The question for Maitland-Niles (and for Arsenal fans) is, what happens next? The versatile youngster will return from his enormously successful international duties and slot straight into pre-season training with the Arsenal first team, as they prepare for their tour to Australia in mid July. In some shape or form he'll already be in Arsene Wenger's plans for the new campaign but Ainsley will be keen to make an impression, and should be confident in doing so, riding the momentum of his Under-20 World Cup success. 

Arsenal have some stiff competition in central midfield, with Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Mohamed Elneny, Francis Coquelin and, when he returns from injury, Santi Cazorla all vying for a staring place, so Maitland-Niles will have his work cut out for him. However he does have a few factors working in his favour.

The largest of which is his versatility, which will bode him well in the near future. At just 19 years-old, he isn't expected to cement a position any time soon, but his flexibility across the midfield and even in defence will put him in good stead to fill in when injuries inevitably take their toll on this Arsenal squad. He can operate in central midfield, on the right wing, and even at right back if needed. Maitland-Niles must capitalise on any opportunity he gets over the course of the next 12 months.

During the 2016/17 season he spent most of his time playing for the under-23s, operating almost exclusively in central midfield. Maitland-Niles made seven senior appearances, featuring three times in the EFL Cup, three times in the FA Cup, and making a late cameo in the Premier League against Sunderland in late October. I was particularly impressed with his performance against Southampton in the 4th round of the FA Cup, when the Gunners routed the Saints 5-0 and young Ainsley put in a dominant 90 minute shift in the middle of the park. He was so composed and assured in possession, and combined effectively with Jeff Reine-Adelaide to cause Southampton a host of problems, never letting them have a sniff of the ball.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Maitland-Niles has ahead of the new season is the level of expectation resting on his shoulders. As in, the general football-going public and your casual Arsenal fan won't expect anything from him at all. This will benefit Ainsley as he can go about his business and continue his development at the right pace, honing his craft in first team training sessions and hopefully be rewarded with a run out in the first eleven from time to time. That would be the ideal situation for Maitland-Niles in 2017/18; anything else is either a bonus, or the rest of the squad have been so decimated by injury that Ainsley simply has to play (great news for him, but not so great for the club if they have to throw the 19 year-old in the deep-end every weekend.)

I don't expect I'll be the only fan keeping a watchful eye on Maitland-Niles' progress and I certainly hope to see him feature for the first team a bit more often in the new season. Best of luck to him.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

All Sead And Done: Kolasinac Signs

Arsenal have secured their first new recruit ahead of next season, sealing a deal for Bosnian left back Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer. The signing will be officially completed on 1 July when the transfer window opens.

Kolasinac joins the Gunners after spending the past six years with Schalke in the Bundesliga. He turns 24 years-old this month and will compete with Nacho Monreal for the left back position (or as the left-sided CB in a back three), or potentially start on the left wing if Arsene Wenger continues with his new formation. The addition of Kolasinac almost certainly spells the end of the road for Kieran Gibbs, with Newcastle one of the clubs interested in capturing the Englishman (for £15 million as well). I will be very sad to see Gibbs go, and I don't think his loyal service to the club is appreciated enough by fans.

Kolasinac is a Bosnia-Herzegovina international and was voted as the starting left back in the Bundesliga team of the season. In 36 appearances for Schalke in all competitions, he scored 3 goals and recorded 8 assists. The stocky and physical defender excelled as part of the Gelsenkirchen side's back line and he was often given the freedom to roam forward, which should suit him well in this attack-minded Arsenal side.

"I'm a player who will try to help the team as well as I can. My strengths are my mentality." I am especially encouraged by that last comment, as this Arsenal squad could certainly use an upgrade in the mentality department. Overall I am very encouraged by the signing of Kolasinac and especially with how quickly the club were able to complete the transfer. I'm hoping his speed and size will suit him well in the Premier League and adding a robust player of his calibre can only improve this team.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Seventh Heaven: Underdog Arsenal Win FA Cup

Saturday 27 May 2017
Arsenal 2 Chelsea 1
Sanchez 4', Ramsey 79', Costa 76'

Arsenal saved their best until last. They entered Saturday's FA Cup final as underdogs and their opponents Chelsea were hotly tipped to complete a domestic double, winning both the league and cup. But as that historic warning goes, football matches aren't played on paper. It's about who turns up on the day, and in that respect, only the team in red and white actually did.

As the afternoon wore on, there were a few indicators that made me feel like the day would be a good one. Seeing Tomas Rosicky in the player's tunnel greeting all his former teammates and friends was one of them. When young defender Rob Holding tangled with Chelsea's pantomime villain Diego Costa early in the game, and began gesturing at Costa by pointing at his head, you could see Holding was up for the battle and wasn't going to let the Spanish forward's notorious antics affect him. And finally, when Alexis Sanchez flung himself at a Chelsea clearance, handling the ball in the process, then bypassed an offside Aaron Ramsey to coolly finish past Thibaut Courtois to give Arsenal an extremely contentious 1-0 lead, I just knew it had to be our day. How often does a string of decisions like that go in Arsenal's favour? Chelsea fans were outraged, and had good reason to be, but this made it all the sweeter for me.

After Saturday's decisive victory, Arsenal have won the trophy a record 13 times, putting themselves back on top as the most successful team in the competition. Arsene Wenger is now the most successful manager in the competition's 146 year history, winning the cup 7 times. He's won it as many times in his career as Chelsea and Liverpool have in their entire history. It's an understatement to say that that's a pretty impressive achievement.

Here are my player ratings for the game:

David Ospina (GK) - 7/10

I gotta admit, I had my doubts. He's been perfectly fine as the cup keeper this season, and was quite good against Manchester City, but I just got it into my head that Petr Cech would start in the biggest game of the season. Credit must go to Ospina though, he put in a solid performance and made some huge saves. He denied Costa twice and both were at crucial stages in the game, as well as making great saves against Victor Moses and a tricky N'golo Kante drive that deflected. I thought he could have done better for their goal, as he did get a hand to it, but the small deflection definitely affected him, as he'd shifted his feet and body weight to the left in anticipation. Overall, he played extremely well and was deserving of his starting spot.

Rob Holding (CB) - 9/10

Exactly one year ago, what was the young Englishman doing? He had just been relegated to League One with an awful Bolton Wanderers team, on which he was the only shining light, winning their player of the season award. He was still nearly 2 months shy of signing for Arsenal. Now look how far he's come in just 12 months, winning the first major domestic honour of his career. Over the past couple of months Holding became an integral cog in Wenger's new 3-4-3 formation. His performance in the final was outstanding, shackling Diego Costa for much of the game and refusing to be bullied by him. All at just 21 years-old. He's got future captain material written all over him.

Per Mertesacker (CB) - 10/10

O Captain! My Captain! Mertesacker made his first Arsenal start since 30 April 2016 but didn't show any signs of rust, and arguably put in the best performance of his Arsenal career. He was an absolute rock in the centre of defence, and his leadership qualities shone through in a faultless display. The BFG needs a statue outside the stadium. NOW. Perfection.

Nacho Monreal (CB) - 8/10

Monreal worked in partnership with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to nullify Chelsea's attack down the left all afternoon. Despite not being a natural centre back, Monreal didn't shy away from the task at hand, as many players may have against the Premier League champions. He hardly put a foot wrong and was his usual tenacious self, working well with Mertesacker to marshal the back line.

Hector Bellerin (RWB) - 7/10

The young Spaniard got the nod ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right flank and kept his opposite number Marcus Alonso quiet all day. Bellerin was absolutely tireless and kept pushing until the final whistle. He was unlucky not to score towards the end of the match, when he sprinted the length of the field, skinning the hapless David Luiz in the process, and narrowly missed scoring in the bottom corner. How should he celebrate winning the cup? A trip to the barbers!

Aaron Ramsey (CM) - 9/10

The guy just loves an FA Cup final. Imperious in midfield against quality opposition in Nemanja Matic and Kante, and later Cesc Fabregas, Ramsey showed all of them how to play a complete game, a true box-to-box midfielder. Disciplined in defence and assured in attack, he was absolutely everywhere. When he popped up to meet Olivier Giroud's cross and nod home what would prove to be the winner, well I'm sure you, like me, went wild in celebration. The Welshman is making a habit of this trophy-winning-goalscorer lark.

Granit Xhaka (CM) - 8/10

He sure picked an opportune day to have his best game in the Arsenal red and white. Up against Kante, a midfielder most critics and fans would have preferred Arsenal had purchased instead last summer, Xhaka showed his true quality and left his French counterpart in his shadow. He was largely mistake-free and showed off his impressive range of passing skills, and I was amazed at his discipline defensively; gone was that reckless abandon he usually exhibits in his tackles, and instead was a composed, confident, and thoughtful midfield general. More of the same next season please Granit!

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (LWB) - 7/10

With Kieran Gibbs missing out due to injury, the Ox was called on to man the left flank, a position he's unaccustomed to. Nevertheless, Alex didn't balk at his new responsibilities, and put in a fantastic showing defensively. He didn't get forward as often as he'd probably have liked but I can't fault him for prioritizing his defensive duties, especially considering who he had to protect in the centre. Moses kept testing Oxlade-Chamberlain up until his eventual sending off, and the Englishman never wilted. A fine way to cap off what's been a great season for the 23 year-old.

Mesut Ozil (AM) - 7/10

It's been said time and time again, but the German superstar really does divide opinion, and no more so was that evident than this FA Cup final. I've seen quite a few reports that Ozil ran the show on Saturday but honestly, I didn't see it. He had some great opportunities to kill Chelsea off but he couldn't deliver. Yes, his passing was usually accurate as we've come expect, and his off-the-ball movement does set him apart from his peers, but I didn't feel any of his output was particularly incisive. I can't knock him too much but I still get frustrated by his overall style of play. Maybe I'm too hard on him, but when you're the club's record signing, very big things are expected and I'll admit that has got to be difficult for anyone.

Alexis Sanchez (AM) - 9/10

The Chilean wasn't my choice for man of the match but he was obviously still one of the best players on the park. His goal to open the game was clinically taken (always play to the whistle kids) and even if it was fortuitous, he still showed the will and desire to chase what a few players would have judged as a lost cause. His pass into Giroud to create the second goal was sublime as well. Sanchez was a menace all game, drifting in off the left flank, and you could tell Chelsea were scared of him. If it does turn out to be that Saturday was his final Arsenal game, then what a way to go out.

Danny Welbeck (ST) - 8/10

I had a feeling Wenger would opt for the Englishman over Giroud, purely for the extra level of danger his movement and pace can cause defences. His constant running and pressing really upset Chelsea's rhythm and he was at the heart of some of our best moves. Welbeck was so unlucky not to score with a header that clipped the post in the first half. His aim for next season should be to stay fit and work on his finishing, as he's so close to being an incredible centre forward for us. He's already a fan favourite.


Olivier Giroud - 8/10

First touch of the game and he sets up the winner. What more can you ask for? An impact sub for the ages.

Francis Coquelin - 6/10

Booked almost as soon as he got on the pitch and had the audacity to perform stepovers in Chelsea's corner. After that moment of madness he settled and helped see out the game.

Mohamed Elneny - N/A

The Egyptian didn't get much time but it was nice to see him make an appearance.


And now, reports today indicate that Saturday was not to be Arsene Wenger's swansong after all. According to various sources, Wenger will not be standing down as manager as some had predicted, and he has agreed on a 2-year contract which is likely to be announced officially by the club on Wednesday. Did you really think he was going to walk away? I'm honestly not surprised but I'm not unhappy either. I still believe the team could do with a fresh approach, because one trophy doesn't erase the last couple of years of staleness. Once he signs on the dotted line, the club and it's fans need to get back to supporting the team. Enough of this bullshit with flying planes and stadium protests directed at the manager. If you're gonna get angry, then by all means aim your vitriol at our silent owner, the one in the dodgy suit. However, I do hope that Wenger has taken note of all that has happened this season and vows for it not to continue. If he can get this team to play every game with the kind of spirit and intelligence they displayed on Saturday, then we'll be going in the right direction. I think, for me, that's all we can ask for.

Friday, 26 May 2017

End On A High: FA Cup Final Preview

Arsenal will face Chelsea at Wembley this Saturday to bring down the curtain on what's been a disappointing season, but the Gunners can bow out on a high note. If Arsenal are able to defeat the champions of England, it will go some way towards healing the wounds of this testing 2016/17 campaign.

With all of the uncertainty hanging over the club at the moment still occupying the thoughts of most fans, the real focus should be on who Arsene Wenger will be selecting for the final. Chelsea manager Antonio Conte has a full squad at his disposal whereas Arsenal have some glaring issues to address, namely at centre back. With Laurent Koscielny picking up a needless suspension thanks to a straight red card in the final league game of the season, and Gabriel stretchered off the pitch with a long-term knee injury in the same match, the boss has a situation on his hands. Combine the absence of Koscielny and Gabriel with the fact that Shkodran Mustafi is suffering from concussion and could be a major doubt to play, and we're now in the midst of a full-blown selection crisis.

So who can Wenger choose?

Club captain Per Mertesacker is finally back to full fitness after missing the entire season with a knee injury. He came on as a sub against Everton at the weekend but should he feature against Chelsea, he'll still be extremely rusty. Mertesacker is as experienced as they come, a real veteran who has played in some of the most high-stakes games imaginable, but this would really be chucking him in the deep end. At the very least, his leadership skills will be valuable in such a big game.

Rob Holding is likely to be a certain choice. The young Englishman has been in impressive form over the the final weeks of the season and nothing has fazed him since he was thrust back into first team action. I fully expect him to be at the heart of things in defence on Saturday.

With Wenger's recent transition to a back three in defence, the other choice would likely be Nacho Monreal. Not considered a natural centre back, the Spaniard has performed admirably in the position when called upon, and I'm sure Monreal will get the call once again.

The choice of who to play on the wings to support the back three presents yet another problem. Kieran Gibbs, the natural choice on the left, is also struggling with his own fitness issue. Gibbs has yet to return to training this week. Thankfully there are no injury concerns on the right flank, just a tactical headache instead. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been a revelation since adopting the wing back role in April, showing flashes of the player the club hoped he would develop into, and he's worked hard to recover from a recent hamstring injury. Alternatively Wenger could opt for Hector Bellerin, who has struggled a lot this season but has been closer to his usual self in the past few games. Defensively Bellerin would make the most sense, but Oxlade-Chamberlain can offer that bit more in attack.

The rest of the team should pick themselves, with the only real question mark being whether to start Olivier Giroud or Danny Welbeck as the focal point of the attack. We are all familiar with what Giroud can offer and, love him or hate him, the guy is a proven-goal scorer (and he's knocked in a couple at Wembley before). Welbeck on the other hand might trouble the Chelsea backline a bit more than Giroud would, thanks to his pace and movement in the channels. If he's fully fit I'd opt for Welbeck to start the game, as Giroud has been effective this season off the bench.

Alexis Sanchez has been a bit of an uncertainty this week with his own fitness problem, but you'd have to build a wall to keep him from playing at Wembley. The ever-tenacious Sanchez will be chomping at the bit to play his part in such a crucial match. On Wednesday, Wenger said: "He needs to go through some tests at the moment and we’ll see how well he comes out of that. Knowing the player, knowing his character and knowing his commitment to the club, which I don’t question at all, he’ll make absolutely everything to be fit for Saturday."

I've seen quite a few pieces about how this could be Sanchez's final game in an Arsenal shirt. I don't think he will leave this summer, but I've been wrong about this before. I also think the outcome of Saturday's game might play some part towards whether he stays or goes. I think I'm in the minority of Arsenal fans when it comes to Sanchez's situation; I don't care very much what he chooses to do. If he stays I'll support him still, and celebrate his goals. If he leaves, I'll shrug my shoulders and focus on who might replace him, rather than mourn his departure. The thing I always talk about with Sanchez is, he's one of the most frustrating superstar Arsenal players I've ever seen, perhaps the most frustrating. I cannot stand his constant need to prove to everyone how skillful he is and the way he takes unnecessary risks in dangerous areas. The amount of times he gives away possession drives me crazy, and I think for a player of his ability and intelligence, he can be better. But then he'll perform a piece of magic or come up with the winning goal and all if forgiven. It drives me nuts. I appreciate players of his calibre are designed to take the riskiest option in order to gain the highest reward, but for Christ's sake Sanchez, just pass the ball sometimes, please?

If it was me (and Mustafi misses out), this would be the first eleven I would opt for:


Holding - Mertesacker - Monreal

Oxlade-Chamberlain - Ramsey - Xhaka - Gibbs

Ozil - Alexis


And finally, will this be Arsene Wenger's final game in charge? After 20 years of service, will it all come to a close on Saturday? Part of me would love to see him bow out in glory, winning one more trophy, his seventh FA Cup. Riding off into the sunset with a cup under his arm is definitely the way to go, should he choose to. I honestly think regardless of what the result is, he will not leave. There'll be a vocal portion of the fanbase outraged if he doesn't go but I just don't see him letting go of the reins until he's good and ready. He'll do it on his terms.

Despite Chelsea being considered the favourites on Saturday, especially considering Arsenal's awful defensive situation, I just hope the Gunners can cause an upset. We've had a very good record at the new Wembley, and in this competition in recent times. Let's put this difficult year behind us and end the season on a high.

Thanks for reading.