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“I trust in every player, I trust in our squad. Our focus now is very clear. The Premier League is the first focus.”

Unai Emery stopped short of saying the top four but that is clearly what he meant. Third or fourth place is probably more realistic than winning the Europa League but will clearly require a greater level of consistency as we approach the pointed end of the season.

In the wake of our FA Cup exit on Friday night we return to league action at home to struggling Cardiff City on Tuesday night at what will be a very cold Ashburton Grove. There may be a bit of a flat atmosphere given the likely loss of life of new Cardiff signing, Emiliano Sala. Cardiff fans are reportedly wearing and handing out yellow daffodils prior to the match so please accept with good grace if offered one.

When asked if Konstantinos Mavropanos might start the match Emery conceded that “he is in the squad with the possibility to play”. I suspect he might be on the bench. Bernd Leno could find himself behind a back four of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Shkodran Mustafi, Nacho Monreal, and Sead Kolasinac.

Could we revert to the diamond shaped midfield that achieved success against Chelsea? That could mean a recall for Matteo Guendouzi in place of Alex Iwobi. Aaron Ramsey would surely relish the prospect of playing against his former club. Let’s keep the pairing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front.

The visitors are currently two points away from  Newcastle’s ‘safe’ 17th place. They are leaking goals and not scoring enough, hence the signing of the unfortunate Sala. Quite how the side will react nobody can foretell, but it is possible they will battle hard in honour of the team-mate they never had. Their top scorer this season is Callum Paterson with four goals.

The ‘holic pound

Our recent seasons are littered with banana skin moments and this has the potential to be another. Hopefully Emery will have his team fully prepared to start strongly and deal with a team they really should be beating at home. Lest we forget the Bluebirds scored twice against us in the reverse fixture at the start of September which we just managed to windy one.

Obviously we are hot favourites so to get double digit value on a correct score punt it’s 4-0 at 12/1, or 5-0 at 22/1. I have gone with the latter on the basis that we are surely going to hand someone a heavy defeat soon?

As one who tends to feel the cold rather more than I used to I have to advise those who are going to wear plenty of layers. It’s forecast to be 2-3 degrees with light showers which raises the possibility of those sitting in the front rows a bit of a soaking.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Unai Emery went with a strong team against Manchester United. Petr Cech came in for Bernd Leno, Ainsley Maitland-Niles replaced Hector Bellerin as expected, and Alex Iwobi was preferred to Matteo Guendouzi. The visitors selected Alexis Sanchez for a rare start.

A high tempo opening by both sides hinted at a classic to follow, but mean-spirited defences kept a lid on the opening phase. The first moment of menace fell to Pogba in the inside left channel in the 12th minute but Cech was quick to effect the smother and the tie remained goal-less.

The sight of a writhing Sokratis Papastathopoulos didn’t bode well and he limped gingerly off in the 18th minute. Although he hobbled back on he gestured to the bench to say he would have to come off again. Let’s hope it isn’t as bad as it looked. We do not need him to join Bellerin, Holding, and Welbeck as long term absentees. Shkodran Mustafi came off the bench in a straight swap.

Our first on target effort came midway through the half when Lacazettte found Iwobi in the box, but the Nigerian international fired straight at Romero in the United goal. On the half hour disaster struck. Sanchez, who else, beat the offside trap and put the visitors ahead  from Lukaku’s pass. The Belgian striker broke free down the right and teed up Lingard for a second just two minutes later.

The Arsenal had threatened mostly down the left flank through Alex Iwobi and Sad Kolasinac. Three minutes from the break Aaron Ramsey added his support and created the opening for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to convert at the far post. One goal adrift rather than two raised spirits around the stadium.

Alexandre Lacazette was denied an equaliser by Romero when fed by Maitland-Niles. The spectacle was taking off. The final play of the half saw Mustafi head wide of the target as United struggled to deal with a Gunners corner.

Half-time The Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

In the opening minute of the second-half we were almost level but Romero’s excellent reaction save from a point-blank Ramsey header maintained the visitors slender advantage. Laurent Koscielny earned the first yellow card of the night for a gentle tug on Pogba’s arm. Mercifully Lukaku launched the resulting free-kick into the Clock End.

As if we needed another defensive injury Koscielny received a sickening blow from Lukaku’s flailing left boot which was adjudged to be accidental. With VAR in operation we’ll have to accept that verdict. A lengthy delay to stem the bleed from the wound totally disrupted the tempo. Mesut Ozil had been readied to come on at this point and he surprisingly replaced the exceptional Iwobi. Guendouzi was the surprise replacement for Koscielny and Granit Xhaka dropped into the back four.

Aubameyang turned provider for Ramsey who unfortunately shanked his approach wide of the mark. Ashley Young was the second yellow card recipient for a deliberate handball as we threatened down the left flank again. United defended the free-kick successfully. Lukaku and Sanchez made way for Rashford and Martial respectively.

Romero again had to be sharp to deny Lacazette the equaliser but in the next phase the marauding Xhaka fired the ball high into the North Bank. Lingard’s reaction to a challenge with Lucas Torreira earned him the third booking of the night. “Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal” boomed out around the Grove.

With ten minutes remaining Unai Emery’s face assumed the look of Bob Hoskins in the final scene of the Long Good Friday, and not without reason. Cech denied Pogba when he drove through the heart of the Arsenal midfield, but Martial was on hand to follow up and restore the two goal advantage.

Kolasinac and Rashford earned yellows for acting like rutting stags. Lingard, already booked, sparked a bout of handbags with his over the top reaction and can consider himself extremely lucky not to have been sent for an early bath. He was immediately substituted and on came the gurner, Jones.

Guendouzi was the next to see yellow, but Lacazette avoided similar similar punishment for a straightforward trip on Pogba. The latter also avoided punishment for a tackle from behind on Maitland-Niles.

One cannot help but feel that the momentum is currently with United, not us. It is something that needs addressing. We cannot argue that it is Unai’s first season when Solskjaer hasn’t been in charge for double figures of matches. Perhaps the Norwegian is getting expert assistance from he of the purple nose?

It was their night, and Unai was driven away into the darkness of a long, but not so good, Friday.

What an evening to have to write a preview of the big match of the FA Cup 4th round at home to Manchester United. In Barbados seventeen wickets have fallen today as I type and Chelsea are two up on the Middlesex Nomads. This may well be finished very late tonight!

Hector Bellerin’s unfortunate injury in the comprehensive defeat of Chelsea last week may temper the mood a little. Who does Unai Emery start instead of him? On this weeks ABW podcast (see below) I thought he would plump for Ainsley Maitland-Niles although this nobody would give Carl Jenkinson a run. Stephan Lichsteiner can spend a lot of time with whoever gets the gig and educate them in the art of defending at the highest level.

Will Unai make any other changes to last week’s starting eleven? Let’s hope not. With the FA Cup looking our best chance of silverware this season I hope he resists the urge to go with a squad team. Update, eighteen wickets fell, and the Nomads will not play a Carabao Cup Final at their current home ground that they cannot fill.

United too will face the same issues. It’s being reported that David de Gea is not travelling for the fixture and that Alexis Sanchez will feature. What was once the biggest fixture in the domestic calendar is still significant with the combatants locked on 44 points in fifth and sixth place in the Premier League. Thank goodness for goal difference. Tonight’s Carabao Cup semi-finalists are very much in our sights.

The ‘holic pound

United arrive at The Grove rejuvenated under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. As with our 22 game unbeaten run let’s not dismiss them for beating teams they should. There is no question we played much better in that run, and so too have United since the laughable special one left.

The bookies are clearly torn. 1-1 is a nervous favourite at 6/1. Then they think 2-1 either way at 8s or 9s. I have a stupid fancy for 2-0 to The Arsenal at a market best of 15/1. I’m on it, but well aware it could be bombed early doors. It’s not my usual type of punt.

That leaves me with posting this week’s ABW podcast, and wishing all ‘holics a good one, as ever. Thank you for putting up with my brevity.

The perfect end to the perfect week. A difficult match against a top four rival, and a near perfect performance. Coming in the wake of the debacle at West Ham this was a real tonic. There is but one dark cloud over our heads this morning. The loss of Hector Bellerin, probably for the rest of the season, is a heavy price to pay. He has come back to something like his best this season and he will be a huge miss.

What had gone on before was an absolute pleasure to witness. We reverted to a back four and Laurent Koscielny got the nod ahead of Shkodran Mustafi. That proved a masterstroke as the skipper looked back to his best. Three combative midfielders and a recall for Aaron Ramsey just behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette gave us a platform from which to switch from attack to defence in an entertaining opening.

We should perhaps been ahead as early as the fourth minute when Lacazette found Aubameyang in front of goal, but sadly the Gabon international shanked his flick wide of the far post. In the eighth minute we gave some notice of what was to follow when a well-drilled corner found Sokratis who was just unable to keep his header on target.

In the thirteenth minute another set piece that did not come as a surprise. Torreira found the head of the rampaging Koscielny and he in turn brought a sensational save out of Arrizabalaga (don’t ask, I haven’t a clue either!).

In  the fourteenth minute we were ahead. Two identical corners found Lacazette, the first cleared behind for the second which Lacazette controlled, spun round, and launched over the outstretched left hand of Arrizabalaga high into the net. The conversion of what the boys had worked on in training was a joy to experience.

The Arsenal 1-0 Chelsea

Three minutes later Aubameyang dispossessed Azpilicueta and sprinted hard on goal but this time Arrizabalaga was equal to the effort. In this mood The Arsenal are an irresistible force. Chelsea finally responded when Pedro beat the offside trap, chipped Bernd Leno, but watched as the ball passed wide of the far post. Nine minutes before half-time we almost witnessed a thing of beauty. Aubameyang’s overhead kick from a Sead Kolasinac cross was a whisker wide of the far post at the other end.

Three minutes later we had the second goal our performance deserved. Luiz picked up a yellow card for a bad challenge on Ramsey and we had another set piece to exploit. Torreira found Kolasinac, he knocked it down for Sokratis to play into the box, and Koscielny reacted the quickest to shoulder it home.

The Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea

We had a further warning shot across the bows in the final action of the half when Alonso’s header came back into play off the foot of a post. We were deservedly two to the good.

The second-half was more technical and less intense, but perhaps surprisingly while we were ceding large chunks of possession we were creating the better chances with both full-backs threatening on successive breaks.

There was also an emotional return for Olivier Giroud as a substitute for the visitors. His song boomed out around the ground and he acknowledged the gesture both at the time, and at the end of the match. The goodwill was not retained on the pitch. Alonso appeared to gouge Maitland-Niles eyes at a corner but escaped punishment. Barkley was lucky to only get a yellow for another bad challenge on Guendouzi. Then it was over.

With the gap reduced to three points to Chelsea, and four to Tottenham, the fight for third and fourth place is very much on. Let’s hope the likely loss of Bellerin brings a return of the defensive uncertainty that has clouded so many performances in recent weeks. How ironic it should have happened on the day we finally found that cohesiveness and determination we suspected was there, somewhere.

More of the same against Manchester United in the FA Cup please!

It feels as though we are reaching a make or break point in our Premier League season with the Saturday evening visit of Chelsea. Put simply if the gap between us and the club currently occupying fourth place in the table grows to nine points tomorrow we are likely to be overtaken by Manchester United and unlikely to return to the Champions League via this route.

Those of you who are on social media will know I had the good fortune to witness some of our preparation for Saturday at Shenley yesterday. (Thank you Lucy, Will, and all connected with The Arsenal Foundation for that.) I cannot go into too much detail but as general observations what stood out was the atmosphere in the squad. We witnessed tremendous camaraderie among the players.

Most notable was the respect afforded to Mesut Ozil. As he arrived for breakfast the players already present paid homage to him and chanted “Mesut, Mesut, Mesut” which he acknowledged with a smile. He played a full part in training and there was communication between Unai Emery and our most creative force.

I have said before that I don’t believe his problems are physical and if you haven’t yet listened to this week’s excellent Arsecast then I heartily recommend that you do. Arseblog and the likeable Philippe Auclair have a pretty comprehensive chat about what potentially ails the club this month and beyond. I am indebted to the latter for putting out this link which may hint at an explanation for what is going on in Mesut’s world right now.

I am persuaded that he has a chance of being involved tomorrow, although few would be surprised if he isn’t. Evidently he is fit and held in good stead by his colleagues. We go into this match on the back of a lunchtime to forget at West Ham where we were denied the creativity of our most talented and incisive passer. I suspect his involvement from the kick-off is unlikely, particularly if we persist with a back three which isn’t working and denies us the opportunity to play a conventional number ten.

It is perhaps time to revert to a 4-2-3-1 this weekend? Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are our best full-backs and should start in front of Bernd Leno or Petr Cech. Sokratis Papastathopoulos is the first central defender on the team sheet right now. Laurent Koscielny appears to be a little less than one hundred percent which is not surprising given the horror injury he is coming back from. That means trusting in Skhodran Mustafi to return to the player who forced himself into the German national side.

I am but an opinionated blogger (aren’t we all) but would change the pairing in front of the back four. Lucas Torreira needs to return as he is our metrognome making sure we are ticking at our best. Alongside him I think it is time to take Granit Xhaka and Matteo Guendouzi out of the firing line and trust Ainsley Maitland-Niles to do a job many think will become his in future.

With a back four we can pick a number ten. For me it should be Mesut, or even Aaron Ramsey, but Alex Iwobi appears to have Unai Emery’s trust right now and he may well get the job. Ramsey might then play on the right, cutting in to provide a goal threat, and Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang on the left but with a similar remit to cut in and go for goal. His relationship with Alexandre Lacazette is amazing to witness at first hand. They are inseparable, jokers both, and now is the time to have these remarkable goalscorers on the pitch at the same time more regularly.

The ‘holic pound

This is what was once regularly described as a six-pointer. Chelsea’s hold over us in the years following the move to The Grove has weakened in recent years. It’s no longer a given that they roll us over as a result of Drogba and Costa bullying defenders. Morata appears to be bound for Atletico and Higuain isn’t likely to be a starter even if his move is confirmed later. That means Hazard or Olivier Giroud will be the main man up front. Both will need some watching.

I’m hoping with a strengthened midfield we will be able to fashion the chances that Auba and Laca need to feast on. I’m not predicting a dramatic improvement defensively so I have to return to the pursuit of the 3-2 home win, available at 28/1. This of course will be delivered by Mesut coming off the bench to transform us in the second-half!

That’s enough for now. Obviously I will be at the match so don’t expect a report until my hangover is bearable on Sunday morning. Next week I hope to put together a piece about the much developed performance management and fitness regime at the club having also enjoyed a couple of chats with Shad Forsythe and Darren Burgess yesterday.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

A Tuesday morning in January with no midweek fixture to write about. The bloggers curse. And yet wait. All of a sudden it becomes a big Arsenal news day. Petr Cech caught a few out with his announcement that he would be retiring at the end of the season. Including, possibly, the club?

“This is my 20th season as a professional player and it has been 20 years since I signed my first professional contract, so it feels like the right time to announce that I will retire at the end of this season. Having played 15 years in the Premier League and won every single trophy possible, I feel like I have achieved everything I set out to achieve. I will continue to work hard at Arsenal to hopefully win one more trophy this season, then I am looking forward to seeing what life holds for me off the pitch.”

There has been an avalanche of tributes from former team-mates, and supporters on social media sites. That will surprise nobody for this outstanding goalkeeper is also respected as a wonderful human as well as a footballer.

I don’t mind admitting I was wrong about him last season when I thought his career had hit the buffers. A pre-season of hard work enabled him to hold off the challenge of the expensive Bernd Leno and while he was trying to adjust to a new system of distribution from the back the standard of his goalkeeping was outstanding again. Only injury robbed him of being first choice and personally I would have reinstated him by now.

I will be sorry to see him go. I hope after his last appearance for the club he lifts the Europa League trophy high above his head.

The Rumour Mill In Overdrive

One bombshell would have sufficed. The other was less of a surprise. Rumours of Sven Mislintat departing the club this month have been circulating for a couple of days now. Rather than spread Chinese whispers I just waited to see if the official announcement would follow.

It’s interesting that there has been no comment on the rumours from anyone of authority at the club, in the same way that the same people have let the media team and Arsenal Foundation people to to pay tributes to Cech on the official website.

Until it is confirmed it is best not to get caught up in the social media frenzy that has followed. It wouldn’t be the first time the club had allowed a leak to be spread so they can work out who the source might be. However the story quickly grew legs with Bayern Munich specifically being linked with an approach for his services. Again though, were these just a string of copycat tales? Let’s hope so.

Something seems amiss at the club right now. Communication problems are the physical manifestation of a sense of ‘not all is well’ surrounding our great club. It’s time for head of football Raul Sanllehi and managing director Vinai Venkatesham to confirm or deny the story that clearly came from an internal source. That’s not the way we should be getting information about the club.

It did make for a lively Tuesday though!

I owe our very own GSD a huge debt of gratitude, and a glass or two of something strong, for picking up the baton and writing the review of our defeat at West Ham. I hope you enjoy his style as much as I do.

Wifi difficulties had ensured that I had seen none of the pre-match talk for this one. Tuning in before kickoff I was pleased to discover that we had some available defenders.

I had a moment of worry when I could not see Laca in the tunnel, but he sprinted out last to take his place with Iwobi and Auba in our attack. Torreira was on the bench. West Ham fielded Samir Nasri. Meh.

Bubbles rang out at kickoff and the home fans sounded in good voice. 31 seconds into the match and some door salesman rang my doorbell. I was appalled at his timing and could not get rid of him fast enough. The Mustafi of door to door sales.

The match started off at a decent pace, both sides looking up for the encounter. We looked the more threatening but neither team was incisive in the last third.

Iwobi drove us forwards early but could not fashion a chance. Anderson showed his pace, Nasri had a few decent touches and looked to get involved against his old employers. We were, as ever, weak down our left flank. Kola was caught high up the pitch a couple of times.

It looks to me like Xhaka, since his few games at left back, now tries to cover that space a little more. Guendouzi had a lot of midfield to cover as Xhaka seemed to have one of those games where he was always a few steps from where he would have liked to have been.

Laca was defintiely our busiest player up top. He made some good runs and dropped deep to get involved in the play. A couple of times he was unlucky not to receive or thread the final pass. We were struggling to get the ball through midfield but the front three looked in good form when we shifted it to them and things looked encouraging enough for the opening twenty minutes and beyond.

Then West Ham began to get a bit more possession and a measure of assurance with it. They continued pressing down our left, found more space running from midfield and although they had been working hard throughout they looked to have added real intent to put our goal under threat.

Anderson shot wide from a Nasri layoff when he was in far too much space on the edge of our box. We were lucky he did not find a finish to test Leno. Before half time there was a chance for the impressive Declan Rice to beat Mustafi to a corner but he could not test the Keeper either.

The half was winding down as it had been played, with plenty of effort but not much real quality. When half time arrived, it gifted the two managers an opportunity to give their teams something of a rallying cry for the second half.

I am not sure it was as a direct results of the ministrations of his manager that Mustafi managed a yellow card for a late tackle in the first minute of the second half. Neither am I convinced that Pellegrini screamed from the touchline “Oi, Ricey, ‘Ave It!” But ‘have it’ is exactly what the young lad did. The ball was rolled to him (after Laca did not stop the cross and then Xhaka defended the cross with a header that does not really belong in the same sentence as the word defended). Kola left Nasri alone in the box and he hit it hard and cleanly past Leno. One nil to The Irons.

We now needed a reply. I was wondering how it was going to go. Were we going to lose limply? Or come back for a morale-boosting win? I don’t know this team well enough to know what to expect.

Initially they did not respond with much. Guendouzi was working hard but he was having a tough game. Midfield was still very tight and it looked like we needed a shift from a back five to a back four. The boss gave the nod for this change just before the hour. He brought on Torreira and Ramsey for Xhaka and Mustafi, neither of whom had had one of their better days.

The positional shift did not see instant dividends either. Kola got a yellow, panicking when he realised that he would now have to track midfield runs. It took ten more minutes of midfield slugging before our changes in personel and system finally showed some signs of making any headway.

Ramsey was tenacious, crossing for Auba to miss the kind of chance he regularly fails to get on target. He is doing well- and there is more in the tank from him too. As the game entered its last quarter we were back in the ascendancy and having another period of pressure, unfortunately with still not enough to show at the end of it.

Bellerin came on. So did Andy Carroll and the big man up top gave West Ham someone to lump it at anytime they fancied a change from holding their positions and passing the ball around tidily.We had the ball in the net but the marauding Kola was feet offside.

West Ham then proved themselves masters of the modern art of Game Management. They pretty much held us at arm’s length to see the game out and we never really looked dangerous enough to break them down. That is the key thing for me today. We played against a well-organised team that worked hard and attacked reasonably well. And that was enough to beat us. That is where we are.

West Ham were good and did lots of good stuff today and they deserve credit. But if that is what it takes to beat us then we will not be challenging for the top prizes.

We conceded a goal that was built on a series of half-chances to clear the ball. We took none of them and the other team scored. That is not unfamiliar. Unlucky? Maybe, but it is the sort of bad luck that this team just begs for. Today we did not look like a top four side. Some days we do. We will need to do so more often.

The second half of this season really could go either way. I still do not know this team well enought to predict. But I hope we see plenty of days better than today before the season is out.

Right, as I will be enjoying some superb Italian food and wine tomorrow night it’s an early preview of Saturday’s trip to the Meccano Stadium for a lunchtime meeting with West Ham.

The hosts are much improved on the team that gave Unai Emery his first Premier League win at the Grove in August, 3-1. They have found mid-table security after a shaky start saw them rooted in the relegation zone. Unai Emery spoke of them with respect in his press conference today.

“I think West Ham are improving and they also have good individual players with quality, like Anderson, like Arnautovic, who are very good players. They are playing at home with their supporters and that’s difficult for us. Each away match is a very big challenge for us to find consistency and progression with our way.”

It’s interesting that he chose to name the players who combined to give the Hammers the lead in the reverse fixture. They have been largely responsible for the faux cockneys revival. Arnautovic may well be distracted by reports of a big offer from a Chinese club at the moment. He is rumoured to be open to the move, for obvious reasons, but West Ham have said that he is not for sale. I imagine the travelling faithful will have a special welcome for Samir Nasri, now at West Ham having served his drugs ban.

If he is not distracted we will need to defend with greater conviction than we have during the injury crisis. I mentioned in the previous post the likeliest to make up a back four. That could switch to a three if Laurent Koscielny is risked alongside Skhodran Mustafi and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Hector Bellerin should strengthen us with a return to right wing-back and Sead Kolasinac on the left. Bernd Leno is likely to return in goal despite Petr Cech keeping a clean sheet at Blackpool.

Lucas Torreira and Granit Xhaka may be reunited in midfield behind a flexible attacking trio. I would opt for Aaron Ramsey to start alongside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. I suspect however that Alex Iwobi may start ahead of the likely departing Welshman.

That will leave us with our strongest looking bench for a while, possibly Petr Cech, Stephan Lichsteiner, Dinos Mavropanos, Nacho Monreal, Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey, and Bukayo Saka or Eddie Nketiah.

The ‘holic pound

The bookmakers favour a 1-1 draw. I’m taking a fresh and rejuvenated Gunners to edge it 1-2 which is available at a best of 17/2.

I will be paddling on Saturday so I’m delighted to say that our very own GSD is being called up as scribe-in-chief for this one. He does write the most entertaining reports so that is something I’m sure we will all look forward to.

Have a great one, ‘holics.

The official website of the club published the excellent news that six of our nine injured players were back in full training today and available for selection for the trip to Stratford on Saturday.

Thankfully five of the six are defenders so now only Rob Holding is unavailable. Hector Bellerin, Skhodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny, Dinos Mavropanos, and Nacho Monreal are all back working to catch the eye of Unai Emery.

That gives the head coach options for whatever formation he wants to play against West Ham United. Mavropanos and Monreal have had the longest lay-offs and may be eased back in from the bench at some point. Koscielny too may need cameos from the bench to raise his match-fitness and confidence. That could mean a flat back four on Saturday of Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Sead Kolasinac.

Further good news for Monreal came with the news that the likeable Spanish international has had the optional extra year on his current contract activated by the club. I still rate him our best left-back and a more than capable stand-in central defender, so as I tweeted earlier that is excellent news.

The sixth player back on the job is Mesut Ozil. Whatever has kept him out is I hope a thing of the past. At his best he creates the chances that Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubamayang can thrive on. Let’s hope we have that Mesut back.

For those who missed it I recorded the ABW podcast last evening with @GeoffArsenal and @sr_collings. It isn’t as long as usual (I will drill that message home one day) so if you want to here some ramblings about the win at Blackpool and a review of the first half of the season click on the YouTube version below.

Come back tomorrow for a preview of the West Ham game as I will be hitting the pasta and wine in Cornwall on Friday evening. Which reminds me, I have a begging email to write. Until tomorrow (Thursday), take care good people.

Unai Emery selected a slightly stronger team than I had suggested in the preview, particularly in defence, but Carl Jenkinson was drafted in late for the injured Laurent Koscielny and it looked makeshift once more. In front of Petr Cech was a back four of Jenkinson, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, and Sead Kolasinac. Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey were paired behind Alex Iwobi, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, and Joe Willock, whilst up front we started Eddie Nketiah. We also had a blend of youth and experience on the bench.

In the third minute Ramsey and Maitland-Niles combined to put Eddie Nketiah clear but the young striker’s left footer went the wrong side of the near post. Blackpool’s giant striker Gnanduillet beat the retreating Lichsteiner too easily and drew a brave near post block from Cech. Maitland-Niles again set up Nketiah at the far post and the young striker again missed the looming target. This was a lively opening.

As ten minutes approached Nketiah was tripped on the edge of the box, Ramsey smashed his free kick via Spearing’s shoulder into the far post, and Joe Willock happily nodded home the rebound with former Gunners keeper Howard left stranded.

Blackpool 0-1 The Arsenal

The travelling faithful left Unai Emery in no doubt of their thoughts on the Aaron Ramsey with a rousing chorus of  “Aaron Ramsey, we want you to stay”. Amen to that but that door is most definitely wide open right now. Looking dangerous with every attack, we went close again with a long range effort from Elneny going just wide of the target. In the 37th minute Iwobi, Jenkinson, and Nketiah combined to present Willock with a second goal of the half. We had breathing space relatively early.

Blackpool 0-2 The Arsenal

In the added minute at the end of the half Nketiah burst clear for a third crack at goal but Howard pulled off an excellent save to deny the young striker who will have walked off the pitch extremely frustrated.

The Arsenal seemed to be settling for controlled possession in the opening phases of the second-half. Iwobi and Ramsey did engineer a shooting opportunity for the latter which was deflected for a corner, but generally we seemed happy to switch play from side to side. Kolasinac earned a yellow card from Mike Dean when he pulled back Delfouneso. No complaints from here.

When we momentarily turned off Blackpool’s other ex-Gunner, Bola, fizzed a ball to the far post and fortunately Nottingham thrashed it wildly into the few hundred home fans behind the goal. When Cech stumbled in front of that same goal we were fortunate that nobody in tangerine was alert to the opportunity. Former Maidenhead United striker Pritchard’s introduction for Taylor provided the hosts with another attacking option.

Unai Emery responded in kind, sending on Alexandre Lacazette for the unfortunate Nketiah. Willock crated panic in the area and Blackpool could only clear the ball as far as Elneny who once again drove narrowly wide of the mark. Shortly afterwards Howard departed injured to be replaced by Mafoumbi. Kolasinac failed to test the substitute goalkeeper when he blazed a wild strike over the crossbar by some distance.

Willock had the ball in the net for a third time but the assistant referee had, again correctly, flagged Kolasinac who was offside before cutting the ball back. The third goal did arrive when Ramsey’s effort was palmed by Mafoumbi into the path of the offside-looking Iwobi who tapped home. For some reason we didn’t have VAR at this match which would have denied us this for sure.

Blackpool 0-3 The Arsenal

Zech Medley’s introduction for Kolasinac got a good cheer from the majority of the crowd, the travelling faithful. Three could have been four when Iwobi ran clear again but he placed his strike too close to Mafoumbi, grateful for the saving opportunity. It was time for a cameo from Saka in place of Iwobi. Mafoumbi’s new found confidence was boosted further when he denied Ramsey on the edge of the box in the four added minutes.

The final whistle signalled the Gunners progress into the fourth round and kept alive the dream of a fourth FA Cup in six years. It also meant we had a rare clean sheet to celebrate. Not a bad evening’s work. It was greeted with a chorus of “She Wore…”

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