Thursday, December 22, 2011

Does This Make Arsenal "Good?"

It is a sage piece of wisdom in nearly every sport, but it bears repeating here as well: good teams win ugly games. Not that their main method of winning is to win ugly, of course, but good teams are able to come up with that extra bit of quality that propels them to victory. That game winning basket, that one last drive, that smart base-running play; successful teams find some way, any way, to will themselves to take a win even when things have not been going as they should. The match versus Aston Villa on Wednesday was a prime example of what happens when a favored side doesn't fully commit to a game and they run into a tough underdog. There are plenty of explanations for why Arsenal didn't come to play in their trip to Villa Park. There was a letdown after the close loss to Manchester City; this match was too quick of a turnaround from Sunday's encounter; the Gunners didn't take Aston Villa seriously. All of these could have been reasons for the Gunners' slowness physically as well as psychologically, but with no way of knowing what exactly kept the team down, let us just say that they did not have their best of matches. However, on their fourteenth corner kick of the match, Yossi Benayoun somehow found a way to get free and give Arsenal three points regardless of what had happened for the last 86 minutes.

That previous time in the match was an oddly lackluster near hour and a half for the Gunners. It wasn't a bad performance exactly and to characterize it as such wouldn't be fair as there were moments of quality to be seen. However it was decidedly not good either as there seemed to be no organization to the Arsenal attack and the midfield passing was rather sloppy, a rarity from the London club. The best word I can think of to describe what happened yesterday is "disjointed." Arsenal was there and was competing, but everything seemed to be just a bit off. It's difficult to describe as the numbers don't quite bear out the difference. In shots (on goal), Arsenal led Villa 11(5) to 9(3), while also dominating in possession 62% to 38%. In perhaps an even more telling stat, Arsenal won 15 corner kicks to 7 for Villa, high numbers on both sides but especially high for Arsenal. But while everything points to a dominating performance that was born out in the end by a late goal, that just wasn't the case.

It is at this point I realize that I could be accused of having perhaps a poetic, subjective view of how "my" team was playing in a match that all statistics point to a different story. It is possible that I'm assigning this performance an unnecessary star-crossed feel by saying how it all wasn't fitting together properly when in fact it was a strong performance by Arsenal, though perhaps not up to their normal standards, which resulted in beating an inferior team. But even though this notion is running through my head, I don't believe that I am changing the feeling of the game by finding this storyline where Arsenal weren't mentally there. For stretches of the game, Aston Villa were legitimately the better team. Before Robin Van Persie's converted penalty kick in the 17th minute, Arsenal looked uncomfortable in possession and had already relied on the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny once to keep the game level. After the PK, Arsenal exhibited more control, but it was in the manner of a team that was finding its feet and working its way back into the game rather than "ok boys, we've got the lead let's bury this thing now." It wasn't until early in the second half when I felt that Arsenal were finally getting control of the match, but then of course Thomas Vermaelen made one of the few bad passes you'll see him make in the year and gifted Marc Albrighton with the equalizer. After that, the build of control completely ceased and Aston Villa were dominating the match. Arsenal looked not defeated, but instead as if they were debating whether or not they wanted to continue, to struggle to regain control. It wasn't until the double-switch in the 81st with Andrei Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun coming on for Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey that Arsenal finally realized that they needed to step it up and win this game or they would be dropping points to an Aston Villa team that has looked anything but convincing this year, yet was giving Arsenal all kinds of trouble in this match. The goal from Benayoun was an escape, but it did the job of securing the full three points and getting an important road win.

Escape or not, however, it was the right result for a team that has proven they are capable of this kind of play this year. Arsenal should never have left it so late. They should not have let the tying goal affect them so negatively and they most definitely should not have waited a full half of the match to begin playing to their ability. Still, they got the result. It is a rare team, or perhaps an impossible dream, that brings the full 100% every single game. More likely, a team will have these types of games over a long season where something just isn't going right. We don't know for sure whether Arsenal is a good team to the extent that they will qualify for Champions League or maybe even challenge for the domestic title. But wins like this certainly give us hope.

Game Notes

-For Arsenal to reach their highest levels, they will need to improve upon their ability to convert corner kicks into goals. Since their loss earlier in the year to Tottenham (a time period that is generally connected with Arsenal's turnaround), Arsenal has only given up more corner kicks than taken once (3-2 vs Chelsea) and only three times on the year in sum. Four times they have earned 10 corner kicks or more with a whopping 129 in total in the Premiere League thus far. With all of these dominating stats, Yossi Benayoun's match winner on Wednesday was only the second goal off of a corner kick all season. Something tells me that that sub 2% conversion rate just isn't going to do it. For starters, every single ball into the box is an in-swinger. If the kick is to the left of goal (when facing it), Mikel Arteta hits it in with his right. If it's to the right, Robin Van Persie hits it in with his left. I understand that Van Persie has a wicked left foot but something has to change when faced with these results. Van Persie is a natural goal scorer who simply has to be in the box for a corner. He's good in the air and he has a knack for doing whatever it takes to put the ball in the net, so he will most likely pick up some garbage goals as well. If this is too drastic of a change, at least switch from in-swingers to out-swingers every now and then as the delivery is entirely too predictable at the moment. Changes must be made.

-I'm unsure whether to applaud or shake my head at Francis Coquelin for his performance in this match. On the positive side, he played the full 90 minutes for his team out of position, which can account for some of his mistakes. Save an obvious gaffe or two in the first half, he did look competent on defense and he has respectable speed. On the negative side though, one of his gaffes was getting badly beaten by Charles N'Zogbia and the other was a poor yellow card for tackling N'Zogbia out of frustration. He began to get forward more towards the end of the match, but that was due to the final push to get the go-ahead goal and he showed almost no threat before that. I like Coquelin. I've said before that I would like to see him get more time and if one way of doing that is to play him out of position while Arsenal is thin due to injury, I can understand that. But he would need to show improvement the next couple of times out or giving Ignasi Miquel the start at left back while moving Lauren Koscielny to the right seems preferable.

- I mentioned in my last post that I would prefer to see Yossi Benayoun coming off the bench than Andrei Arshavin, and this match has pretty much sealed it. It was not just the goal though; Benayoun played with pace and the desire to win the ball, which is exactly what is needed from him when you're trying to get a crucial goal. Granted Arshavin saw the field too due to the double switch and granted he did play slightly better than his past performances, but he still is not a game-changer. I would still much rather see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain than either of the veterans, but if you're going to play one then Benayoun is the one to pick. As Always, Go Gunners.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bench Full of Nothing

If you missed the Manchester City vs Arsenal match on Sunday then I feel nothing but pity for you as it was one of the most entertaining matches I've watched all year. The soccer haters will scoff at calling a 1-0 match entertaining, but this was a game with chance after chance where the score could just as easily have ended 5-4 (and perhaps should have, depending on your opinion on the finishing versus the defense). Arsenal fans should take heart as this is a match that the Gunners could easily have won if certain plays had luck change just a bit in Arsenal's direction. Having said that, Manchester City was the better team yesterday and if luck had gone just a bit more in their direction, we could be talking about a 4-0 walkover instead. Arsenal did look a bit scattered at times on defense, but that is unfortunately to be expected with four fullbacks hurt and therefore Johan Djourou and Thomas Vermaelen playing out of position on the flanks. The offense created chances but could not finish, except for the one beautiful chip by Robin Van Persie that was correctly called back for offsides. All of these things happened and plenty more, but rather than giving a blow by blow report of what transpired or breaking down specific aspects of the game, I'd like to harp on the reason I believe Arsenal lost this match: depth.

To regular readers of this blog, I'm sure I sound like a broken record. I've mentioned time and time again how Arsenal is incredibly thin in the back, how they don't have a suitable back-up for Van Persie, how they need to make moves in the January transfer window, and so on and so on. But in this case, I'd like to point to the Gunners' lack of depth with a much more concrete example from Sunday's match. In the 65th minute or so, Arsenal was down one to City and of course there was no reason to assume that Arsene Wenger wouldn't go full out for the draw, or even win, playing away against the league leaders. The question then became, who would he send into the game to try to get the equalizer? As I asked myself this question, my heart sank. I could not think of a single player who was the go-to instant offense for a situation like this. Then I sat upright in excitement because I realized that this was the perfect environment to send Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in: low pressure (can't really fault a team for losing by a goal away to the best team in the league), high impact (tons of pace down the wing in a game where one goal changes everything), and absolutely up in the air. Imagine my dismay when I checked the roster for the match and saw that he wasn't even available as a substitute. As you know, I am generally a defender of Arsene Wenger and his style of managing. This, however, is the main area in which he and I disagree this year. I cannot understand for the life of me why Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn't get more run with the side, or at least why he's not even available in most games. He has shown great talent and poise thus far in his young career and he is the perfect player for these types of games, where the Gunners need some spark and a goal. But he wasn't even available. Arsene, I don't understand it.

Instead, our glorious leader went with Andrei Arshavin and things just went downhill from there. I understand the introduction of Arshavin. When at his best, he provides speed and quickness, can create offense out of nothing, and will run hard at a tired defense. But let's be frank: Arshavin has not been at his best for the better part of the last two seasons. I don't know if this is who he actually is now that teams are used to playing against him or if he just has an atrocious case of the yips, but the Russian is simply no longer a viable option. His play in Manchester was abominable and Wenger should think long and hard about how much time Arshavin actually should see. Perhaps it's time to put some feelers out to Anzhi Makhachkala...?

Marouane Chamakh was the other substitute used (aside from Ignasi Miquel, but that was a forced substitution when Djourou went down with an injury) and though he doesn't deserve his own section, I'm going to give him one anyway. The problem with using Chamakh as a substitute in this kind of game is that he's a poor man's Robin Van Persie. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. He is a single-mother-working-three-jobs-to-keep-food-on-the-table-for-her-four-children-while-trying-to-fend-off-the-advances-of-her-over-aggressive-boss-but-keeping-from-losing-her-job's Robin Van Persie. While that might be fine for Carling Cup matches or meaningless Champions League games where the group is already wrapped up (or just resting Van Persie in general), Chamakh simply doesn't fit into a match where Arsenal is behind and Van Persie is still playing. Aside from his poor form for the last year, he doesn't bring anything to the table and doesn't mesh right with the rest of the tactics. So when you see him warming up on the sidelines, it doesn't exactly make an Arsenal fan think "ok, we still have a shot at this thing."

The rest of the bench yesterday varies from "he doesn't do what we need right now" to "dear god no, not him!!" For the record, I view Emmanuel Frimpong as the former and Tomas Rosicky as the latter. The aforementioned Miquel is an interesting player who I think might have a future with the Gunners, but he isn't an attacking option that you bring into a match like this. I still haven't given up on Yossi Benayoun and if in the future Arsenal needs to bring on an experienced winger, I do hope Benayoun gets the call over Arshavin, but he isn't exactly a spark of energy at a desperate time. He's more the type of player who will see duty when Gervinho departs for national team duty. So who does that leave? Aside from Oxlade-Chamberlain, no one. There are some younger players that might grow into the role, and when Jack Wilshere comes back that will help since most likely there will be a rotation between him, Aaron Ramsey, and Mikel Arteta, but as of now Arsenal doesn't have the players for every situation.

With the loss at Manchester City, the depth issue has gone beyond the realm of "just in case someone gets hurt" or "when we need to rest a player." Arsenal's lack of an offensive substitute may have cost them three points on Sunday as the game was still there for the taking up to the very last second. I know that Arsene Wenger believes in his squad and I fully agree if he's limiting that belief to his starting squad. But the bench is not good enough and the Gunners can't afford to drop anymore points going forward. Here's hoping he has the good sense to find some upgrades during January.

Game Notes

-Aside from his nice effort on goal in the 56th minute or so, Theo Walcott was invisible during the big clash with Man City. It should be noted that he has been a big factor in many of Arsenal's games this year, most notably the win over Chelsea, so it is not my intention to bring up tired old stereotypes of Walcott's ability. But his absence was notable in a game where most people expected Arsenal to exploit City on the wings using the pace of Walcott and Gervinho. The Ivorian did his job but Walcott seemed lost during the game, never calling for the ball or making himself a part of the play. One game is excusable, even if it's a big one, but please don't make this a habit, Theo.

-I never thought I would lament an injury to Johan Djourou but I must admit to being quite worried when I saw him leaving the field on Sunday. With now five(!) fullbacks hurt, it looks like Arsenal will be forced to start Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker in the middle, with Ignasi Miquel on the left and Laurent Koscielny on the right. Things will get "better" when Kieran Gibbs comes back in a week and this starting four is not the worst that Arsenal could put forward, but the overlapping runs and marauding attitude of Bacary Sagna and Andre Santos were definitely missed in the match versus City. The ability of Arsenal's first-choice fullbacks to get forward puts teams further back on their heels, especially combined with the work and speed of Walcott and Gervinho. Miquel showed signs of getting forward on Sunday and Koscielny made a run or two, but with nowhere near the consistency of Sagna and Santos. Aside from the injury concern over Robin Van Persie, I think this lack of flank play will be the main worry for the Gunners going forward.

-I haven't mentioned him in the while, mostly because it seems that good matches from him are automatic, but Wojciech Szczesny is having a monster of a season. He made several crucial saves on City attackers and gave Arsenal a chance for the entirety of the match. I heard some rumblings about how he could have done more to punch Mario Balotelli's attempt away since it eventually became David Silva's tap-in goal, but that is nit-picking a man who has been sensational all year. The young Polish international has proven himself to be one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League this season and I for one am so happy to have ended the Manuel Almunia era. Kudos to you Wojciech. As Always, Go Gunners.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fitting the Games to the Narratives

Several times this year I have mentioned different narratives that Arsenal fans have gotten used to, and deservedly so, over the years. Playing fancy rather than to score, trying to pass the ball into the net, not having a killer instinct, not being tough enough to hold on against top competition, and so on. Though these themes are simple constructions and constructions of this nature do not have a direct bearing on new matches, they are useful for various reasons. For starters, they are grounded in the facts of the past. Arsenal has, over the past couple of years, not seemed to have the steel and fortitude necessary when it was required. When the players got knocked around and roughed up, they seemed to fall to the ground and raise their hands, bewildered as to what the opposing team could possibly be doing. The desired response of course is that the Gunners would realize what was happening, adjust accordingly, and at the very least not let such tactics disrupt their game. Though these instances have occurred in the past, it is important to consider the narrative for the future because many of the current Arsenal players are veterans from those teams with all the troubles. There has been turnover of course and it would be easy to say that Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were "those" kind of players and now things are completely different, but that would be a bit disingenuous and quite removed from reality. The fact is that this Arsenal squad will be rightly judged by the performances of the recent Arsenal squads until they prove that they are different. With this entire season taking a different tone than any past season (awful start, Arsene Wenger's job on the line, brilliant comeback, so on), why then is the team still being not just judged by past narratives but crammed into them?

If you watch this fantastic interview, you (hopefully) will come across thinking two things: 1. Russell Brand is much more intelligent than you had originally thought and; 2. His point about narratives is very well stated. For those who don't want to bother with the video, he argues that narratives are used in politics so often nowadays because it's a way to express an idea without actually having to argue for that idea. It's much easier to portray George W. Bush as a Washington outsider and a cowboy from Texas than it is to make that same argument when the evidence shows that he grew up in Connecticut, went to Yale, and has a man who was Vice-President and President for his father. We use these narratives to express things because it is an easy way to typecast and label someone or something with very little effort. It's a straw man argument, but one that is difficult to disprove because the story itself is built into the heads of the people who are already familiar with the subject matter. It would be very easy to use the "action hero" label on Colin Farrell due to his performances in movies like S.W.A.T. and Miami Vice and therefore assign a whole other set of characteristics, both positive and negative, without even having to enumerate or defend them. So now it would fall on a defender of Farrell to point out that he was brilliant in the dark comedy In Bruges, or that he played a very understated role in Crazy Heart, or that he was hilariously over the top in Horrible Bosses. It's an uphill battle to fight these narratives because they already exist in people's minds and merely need to be appealed to.

The Russell Brand interview was repeating in my mind as I watched the Arsenal vs Everton match today because I couldn't believe how hard the announcers were trying to make the match fit their prefabricated notion of what an Arsenal match really was. We've seen this plenty of times already this year, from pundits calling the early season the "downfall of Arsenal" despite the fact that at one point they had three starters suspended and another four injured, to a draw to Marseille at home being proof of the Gunners' lack of character. I've heard these comments before and they've annoyed me, but I acknowledge that I watch the team week in and week out and, as a fan, there is the possibility that I'm biased. However, today's commentary sent me over the edge. I have never heard a match be so obviously shoe-horned into a particular set of contrived ideas than the one today.

To me, it started with the chance that Theo Walcott had in the 15th minute. He received a beautiful through ball and broke into the box on the right side. Rather than take an open shot though, he tried to play across to Gervinho but an Everton defender slid in to break it up. Gervinho still got the ball back and put a shot in on the open net but another Everton defender slid in front of it to deflect the ball over the endline. In my notes on the match I had ripped Theo for not taking the shot initially, but then I saw that Howard had done well to come out and limit the angles and that there were two Arsenal players open to Walcott's left. I still would like to see him shoot it as maybe Howard would give up an easy rebound, but I understand that he saw a potentially better option with the pass to set up the tap-in goal. What came from this was the beginning of a game-long "Arsenal is trying to pass the ball into the net" narrative that never let up. It's one thing if you want to say "Theo should shoot there and if he doesn't then it has to be a better pass." It's a completely different story to say that this is a fundamental problem with Arsenal as a team. If that pass is properly spaced then the ball is in the back of the net and those same announcers would be praising Walcott's decision-making ability. And that's my problem. It's not that someone may disagree with me regarding an assessment of what happened, it's how disingenuous the whole build-up of this narrative is.

This went on throughout the match and the commentary got worse and worse. Despite Aaron Ramsey turning beautifully in the box and floating a shot just barely over the post, despite Walcott having a near post blast stopped by an outstretched Tim Howard, despite having Howard stop a low Gervinho when the Ivorian was in alone, despite all of these chances and just slightly missed balls, Arsenal's play had been "disappointing" at the half. I thought to myself "they have to be joking. This has been one of the most entertaining matches I've watched all year! Arsenal has had a lot of opportunities, true, but many of them were shut down by fabulous Everton defending or barely mistimed runs or passes. How could this be 'disappointing?'" The worst, in my mind, came in the 55th minute when Walcott thundered a low volley into the box that was just slightly behind Robin Van Persie, which caused the ball to deflect away. This was simply a well-struck ball that was inches away from being a goal, but was instead pinballed out in a reasonable fashion. Instead, the announcers called it "a wasted chance." I was stunned. "Unfortunate timing" I could see. "A bit unlucky" I would understand. "A wasted chance" because a ball that was well struck but never quite on target didn't go in the back of the net? You can call every play in the box that doesn't result in a goal a "wasted chance" then. Again, it's how people are disingenuous about these critiques. If the announcers weren't already working with the "disappointing match for Arsenal where they can't score a goal" narrative then the commentary would have been a little more balanced and a little more rational.

Luckily Van Persie put that narrative out of reach with his brilliant strike to put the Gunners ahead for good in the 7oth minute and in the end, a 1-0 Arsenal win was a very likely outcome. They had been the better team all game, had the most dangerous chances, and deserved to have one of them put in. Then again, Everton defended brilliantly all day and played very well for ninety minutes. They were unlucky not to get a point out of the match, and would have even been justified with the full three points if a bounce had gone their way. Ultimately, this was a hard fought game in which Arsenal attacked very well, Everton defended very well, and the game could have gone in either direction. And, but for a moment of brilliance, it may well have. Is it so wrong to say that? Is it so wrong to respond to a game as it's being played rather than shove whatever happens into the box of what you already want to say? I think that it might be best for all involved if we started looking at the games as they happen on the field rather than come in with your direction already prepared. But what do I know, I'm not a commentator.

Game Notes

-Briefly keeping with the theme of the narratives, did the announcers really need to reach so hard as to call Theo Walcott's performance "disappointing" and say that he needs to "develop consistency" despite the fact that he very nearly set up two goals, almost scored one himself were it not for a world class save by Tim Howard, and was an absolute menace on the wings whenever he touched the ball? He did miss a couple of crosses badly, which he knows is not his strong suit, but he still had a largely productive game. Michael Cox wrote an excellent article recently where he asked "Why so hesitant and forced?" when people praised Walcott, and he's right. Walcott has played exceptionally this year, posing a constant threat on the wings while adding two goals and four assists during Premier League play. What does he need to do for people to start giving him at least some credit?

-Speaking of credit, here's some for Alex Song, my man of the match. All game long Song was instrumental in playing the strong holding midfielder role in front of Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker (due to Thomas Vermaelen being forced to play out of position at left full), but he did much more than that. He passed well out from the back and he also made several brilliant passes up to the front, including the perfectly weighted chip that found Van Persie for the game winner. His outside of the foot curling through balls almost led to several other goals as he had one of his best games of the year. Brilliant stuff from Alex Song.

-Once again though, the ominous specter of Depth looms over Arsenal, waiting to derail its title hopes. When the match was still 0-0 in the 65th minute or so, I was looking over the bench list to see who they could bring on to liven up the game. I then became extremely worried. Arshavin, Benayoun, Rosicky, Chamakh? Good God. When Walcott pulled up lame, I first looked for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a replacement only to see that he wasn't even on the bench. I understand that Arsene Wenger wants to rely on his veterans as a stabilizing presence, but they are not game changers. He either needs to let some kids like Oxlade-Chamberlain have some run, or make smart moves during the transfer window. If he doesn't, Arsenal just won't have the firepower to outrun Depth. As Always, Go Gunners.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Losing Steam?

Momentum is a funny thing in sports. It is incredibly important but is created through all kinds of events, from hustle plays to unbelievable outcomes. It can drive good players to do great things and great players to become historic, yet sometimes it seems to have no affect on players at all. Some players soldier on regardless of the tide crashing into them (e.g. Aaron Rodgers) while others couldn't be carried to shore at Manhattan Beach (e.g. AJ Burnett). But it really does seem that anything can start or change it. There are certain instances where it is fairly obvious: a walk-off home run changes the momentum of a series, or a huge interception gets a team into that "we can win this thing" mode. But other times it's something less noticeable: a scrappy shift by a fourth line in a playoff game or a sweetly struck winner up the line by a player who was starting to lose faith in himself. When anything can change momentum, fans begin to worry at the smallest signs of a team faltering if that team has done it in the past. No Minnesota Vikings or Cleveland Browns fan doesn't get that lump in their throat when things start to fall apart. No Washington Capitals or San Jose Sharks fan doesn't throw up their hands and yell "Again?!" when their team gives up a big goal in a playoff game. Even when fans try to be supportive, you can still sense that nervous energy that buzzes around the stadium and the worry is always that the players feel it too. Given that Arsenal has had plenty of those moments over the last couple of years, what are we to make of the sloppy loss at Olympiakos?

Arsenal went into this match with all the momentum in the world. Arsenal was undefeated in their last 11 Champions League and Premier League matches coming into this game and people were starting to believe in them. That streak had allowed them to win their Champions League group prior to the last group stage match as well as rise to fifth on the English table, only a win/loss weekend away from climbing above Chelsea into the coveted fourth spot. Moreover, the team was playing as a real team, with Robin Van Persie leading the way looking like an absolute world beater. The hardships the Gunners had undergone seemed to bring them together and they looked tight knit, be it on celebrations after goals or the way they looked to pick out each other rather than running into multiple defenders and giving up the ball as well as their hopes. It would be quite reasonable to think that this new and improved Arsenal squad was on its way to better times. But then came the stumbling block.

Let's say first off that this match had everything going against Arsenal and every fan knew it. Arsenal had already advanced so were playing for nothing; Olympiakos needed a win to advance so were playing for everything; the match was in Greece; Arsenal was going to rest their most important starters; for the Gunners, the game didn't matter. And so it would be perfectly reasonable if Arsenal went out, knocked the ball around, scored maybe once, and got beat by a more enthusiastic, more desperate Olympiakos side. But what happened was far less routine than all of that. It wasn't that Arsenal lost 3-1, a reasonable score for this type of match. It was the way that they lost. The defense looked horrendous, partly due to a disinterested effort from Thomas Vermaelen, the first time I've really seen him play that way. Olympiakos pressed high and rather than string two or three passes to beat the first man and break into space, Arsenal's youngsters constantly gave the ball away. There were rarely connections between the ball coming out of the back to the attackers up front, especially once the perennial Greek contenders began to dominate possession. Once again, this can be excused by the inexperience of the up-and-comers that received the starts, but it doesn't explain the lackluster performance from Andrei Arshavin or why Yossi Benayoun was borderline non-existent. The iconic moment of the match was of course when third string keeper Vito Mannone botched a second save by foolishly trying to scissor kick a shot away when he had already retreated into the box and could have caught it instead. While this could all be expected from a game where Arsenal had nothing to win, in some people's minds it will be seen that they still had something to lose.

In my mind, however, this Arsenal team is different. I have written about it all year long and I believe that the pressure these players have been under all year has molded rather than broken them. The loss at Tottenham could have destroyed them. Instead the Gunners rattled off five straight wins in the Premier League. Their inability to clinch the Champions League group at home against Marseille could have set nerves on edge. Instead they went out and clinched the very next match against Borussia Dortmund. The home draw to Fulham could have brought the team back down to earth and made them doubt their goal scoring abilities. Instead Arsenal came back and blasted four tallies in at Wigan. This team has been playing from behind for so long that they no longer have excuses. They wouldn't have made it back to this point if they didn't believe they could win and a game like this is not going to stop that momentum. For Everton on Saturday, the full squad will be back out again and we'll see what the response will be. My money is on another Premier League win.

Game Notes

-With all that went wrong for Arsenal on Tuesday, the biggest was obviously the loss of Andre Santos for "a while" according to Arsene Wenger. Santos is still a fairly weak on-the-ball defender, but his runs down the left side and the combination play with Gervinho has been electrifying all season long. Even if you're the type of viewer who doesn't believe in the play of Santos, it's hard to argue that he wasn't the best option. Aside from being terrible, Kieran Gibbs, and Carl Jenkinson are both injured, so the role of left back could go to anyone from Laurent Koscielny to Ignasi Miquel to Thomas Vermaelen, though I dismiss the latter as a garbage idea due to how important Vermaelen is to the organization of the defense. Personally, I would keep Koscielny on the right hand side until Bacary Sagna is back and try out Ignasi Miquel on the left because in my mind, the only other option is Johan Djourou and we've already seen that he's only the answer when other players need a rest.

-One thing Arsenal must prepare for each match is their opponent pressing high as it continues to work against the Gunners. To be fair, this week it worked against young players and under-performing veterans and Arsenal was able to effectively counter when Fulham tried to get too close, using quick passing to break through the first line. But until they prove that they can counter it routinely and with devastating results, the high pressure will always been in the back pocket of opposing managers.

-Thomas Vermaelen, I expect games like that from Andrei Arshavin but not you. You're the heart and soul of this defense, perhaps of this team, and you can't have performances like that when your team needs you. Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone are by no means fine goalkeepers, but you did them no favors with your soft back passes and inconsistent marking. I know you were working with Sebastien Squillaci (perish the thought) but you have to make him better rather than sink to his level. I know you're a gamer and I know you're a leader, so I have faith in you. Prove me right. As Always, Go Gunners.