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This won’t be a long piece, or a conventional report on the 1-2 defeat to Southampton in tonight’s COCup 3rd round tie at the Grove.

In this, the least valued of the domestic cups, we like many others choose to use the squad available to us to give them first team experience in front of a big crowd. Down the years invariably we have found we have sufficient quality to progress, sometimes to the amazement of many.

Tonight we have seen the other side of the coin. Actually I saw about an hour of it. Another story altogether. I joined the contest at 1-1. Broadband providers are not infallible. As far as the goals were concerned I caught up at half-time. Alexis nailed a wonderful free-kick to give us the lead. Tomas Rosicky caught the quick to collapse Mane and a penalty levelled matters. I had the fortune, or misfortune, to join the match live as Clyne thumped an absolute beauty in from somewhere far south of the North Bank. It was a goal fit to win a game.

If you followed me on Twitter tonight you already know my take on the match. We wondered beforehand about the capability of a makeshift back five to hold out to a full-strength Saints side. Despite the result the answer has to be yes, they did. Debutant goalkeeper David Ospina was protected by four kids, effectively. Hector Bellerin, Calum Chambers, Isaac Hayden, and at 23 the only non-teenager, Francis Coquelin, could not take any blame for a soft penalty conceded by the skipper, or a long range wonder strike. I thought them one of three positives to come from the evening.

Another was obviously Alexis Sanchez. I read some comments at the weekend that we were better for him not being available. I could say poppycock, but I’ll call ‘bollocks’ as I have had a bad day too. The man’s workrate, given he is our second most expensive signing ever, and a true world class star, is astonishing. I cannot wait to see him, Danny, and Theo, playing ahead of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, with maybe a match fit Abou Diaby in behind. (OK, I’m a dreamer, I’ll grant you.) Big teams will be ripped a new one.

The final positive is actually a result of the negative of the night. Given that the new-look back five held up pretty well it follows that our defeat owes much to the inability of an experienced front six to produce a match-winning performance. Don’t tell me that a combination of Abou Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, and Alexis, couldn’t have found a way to get us through if all were match fit. It was painfully clear that two or three of those need a game under their belt. No names, no pack drill. Now they have a game behind them and will be better if required in the big couple of weeks to follow.

What more needs to be said? Of course nobody wanted us to go out tonight. I think it a bad thing because if we keep the squad largely fit (and therein lies the rub), this competition provides serious football for those now playing a back-up role. The other side of that coin is that if you do get a first team start, in the three competitions that remain available to us, you had better be prepared to give your all in a bid to keep the cannon on your chest.

Not a good night, maybe, but worse things could have befallen us. The next three matches are much, MUCH, more important.

The COCup approaches, and provides a fascinating challenge to those who like to predict the team that Arsene will put out for this third round tie. If the last round is any guide then Ronald Koeman will bring a strong side to the Grove. Why wouldn’t he, for in all honesty this competition provides the best opportunity now for those outside the top half dozen (yes, I know they are currently second in the table, but they won’t stay there) clubs to qualify for European football.

Arsene would probably like to change all eleven starters from Saturday’s impressive win at Villa Park, but with only three recognised senior defenders plus Saints young ‘old boy’, Calum Chambers he is really clutching at straws in this department. Popular opinion online today, fuelled by Arsene’s presser, has Hector Bellerin coming in at right back, and possibly Isaac Hayden in the centre. People are speculating that Chambers could be the second centre-back, but I have a feeling, and no more, that Per Mertesacker could get that berth and the captain’s armband. If David Ospina gets a likely debut in goal it would be good for him to work with the unofficial leader of the back four (or Laurent Koscielny, of course) and start to build an understanding with him.

Left-back is another big call. With Nacho Monreal do we go with Kieran Gibbs, and hope against hope he doesn’t get another injury, or perhaps ask Mathieu Flamini to reprise his part in the run to the Champions League Final of 2006. If the latter option is taken then the way is clear for a recall for Francis Coquelin in midfield. There cannot be many who thought they would see him in an Arsenal shirt this season, but maybe Arsene has seen some development in him during his loan spell at Freiburg last season. This is an opportunity for him to impress in a holding role where we look short on paper.

The attacking options are less of an issue. A look at those who started on the bench on Saturday reveals potential for immediate promotion, and little reduction in quality. Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Jack Wilshere, and Lukas Podolski could complete a quintet feeding Alexis Sanchez. Joel Campbell must also be in contention for a place, and Chuba Akpom could get a summons from the bench if we need to freshen things up in the second-half.

So there. All the bases covered, and I probably haven’t stumbled on the correct starting eleven. Invariably we get past this stage of the competition, but this looks a particularly difficult test. We have to hope we have just enough to get past the surprise package of the opening weeks of the Premier league season. When the manager and several of their top players departed for pastures new this summer who would have guessed that the Saints would recover from an unlucky opening day defeat at Anfield, by the odd goal in three, to secure three wins and a draw and trail Chelsea by just three points going into week six.

I have thought long and hard about the ‘holic pound, nervous of the potential outcome given the uncertainty about who will be in the back four. Astute regulars will know I look for value in the anytime goalscorer odds when such encounters occur. As I type Tomas Rosicky is 11/2 to score on the night with one High Street bookie and that is far and away the pick of what I am looking at. Just keep it to your minimum affordable stake. This could be a strange evening, depending on the team selected.

To those who are going, have a wonderful evening. There is a mixture of regulars and occasional match attendees at early rounds of this competition that makes, usually, for an unusual atmosphere at the Grove. Please don’t do that bloody Mexican wave, but do please get behind the eleven in red, whoever they may be. As for the rest of us, will there be a stream? Is any broadcaster showing this game live? Over to you, international ‘holics.

Have a good one.

Sorry about that! For half an hour or so we had an evenly contested match at Villa Park. The nerves prompted by the midweek performance in Dortmund were barely soothed by Villa’s first shot on target being saved by Wojciech Szczesny. The goalkeeper needed to be at his best, and was. His instinctive save from Clark’s point-blank header probably had a big bearing on the outcome.

However, the Pole wasn’t the man who will collect most of the plaudits.  The match was decided by an astonishing 192 seconds which started when Danny Welbeck slotted a through ball between defenders for Mesut Ozil, who finished with what can only be described as ridiculous ease. The World Cup winner has had a mixed start to the season in an unfamiliar role, but restored to the centre of things he influenced proceedings throughout and gave a masterclass in passing.

The German turned provider in the next attack. Aaron Ramsey freed him down the left flank and Mesut’s cross was turned home by Welbeck, opening his account for the Gunners. There will be many more to come, surely. Villa were blown away when Cissokho turned Kieran Gibbs’ cross into his own net. It was a remarkable few minutes and could have turned into four, with both Ramsey and Ozil firing wide as the half drew to a close.

Arsene won’t have had many easier half-time talks. “Keep the ball and do nothing silly”, or something along those lines we can imagine. The boys carried out those instructions to the letter as a deflated Villa offered little in the way of a threat after the break. It was noticeable that they all but stopped pressing the ball, and that may have owed something to a bug, rumoured to have affected a few of their number ahead of kick-off.

Ozil and Welbeck, building a promising understanding, came close to adding to their first-half strikes. For the main part though the Gunners played a simple passing game to deny the hosts any meaningful possession and for once the travelling faithful and screenwatching Gooners had a relatively relaxed forty-five minutes.

After the final whistle Arsene was quick to point out the significant contribution of his playmaker.

“Ozil played today behind their midfield because I thought they made it very tight. But it’s important for us to find Ozil between the lines and move the game forward.”

Any review of the game has to take into account that Villa, despite their impressive opening to the season, lost the heart for the battle after that three goal salvo. That doesn’t detract from the visitors performance, however. Arsenal, searching for form in the opening weeks of the season, found it today and it is hard not to attribute a huge chunk of that to having Ozil in the chief creative role.

Bring on Southampton, also flying right now, in the COCup.

Villa away. Say it quickly, and it doesn’t worry at all does it? We have had our ups and downs there over the years, but by and large a place we have gone to with some confidence. Now say it slowly. Express it differently. We are away to the team second in the Premier League four days after stinking the place out in Dortmund. We have two full-backs, and three strikers, ruled out by injury. Seeing both sides can be painful, which may be why some shy away from doing just that.

Let’s start again. Beaten for the first time in fourteen competitive fixtures on Tuesday night, Arsenal are not in intensive care. Villa do look as though they will provide a stiffer test than we might have anticipated pre-season. They dropped their only points in four starts this season in a goalless draw with Newcastle. Apart from that they have beaten Hull 2-1, and won away fixtures at Stoke and Liverpool, both by the only goal of the game. The latter is the result that caused raised eyebrows. A fluke? We may well find out at around ten to five on Saturday.

As for the Arsenal, the back five pretty much picks itself. With Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal ruled out it must be Calum Chambers, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, and Kieran Gibbs in front of Wojciech Szczesny.

The midfield, however, must be causing Arsene more sleepless nights than the one inflicted on me by thunderstorms last night. If last Saturday is a guide then Arsene’s persistence with Jack Wilshere in a central role is fully justified. We are struggling to find form with Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and Alexis around him, and ahead of either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini. Stick or twist? Arsene has Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lukas Podolski, and even Joel Campbell as options if he wants to tinker. No more than gut feel tells me a change is possible at Villa Park.

It could be a big afternoon for Danny Welbeck, a likely starter up front and seeking that all-important first goal for his new club. He had chances against both Manchester City and Dortmund, so hopefully this wil be a case of third time lucky for the new boy. He could come up against someone called Senderos. The name rings a bell from somewhere. If Danny has a better day than the in-form Agbonlahor then we could be within a point of them at the final whistle. Thankfully this man won’t be playing for Villa.

The ‘holic pound, as ever, seeks value in the away win. 1-2 at 8/1 looks pretty tempting to me. For those that are making the trip, particularly those on the ‘rum special’, have a blinding day, but not literally. Those of you who, like this scribe, will be chasing streams, I wish you happy hunting.

Have a great one ‘holics.

“It was pressing, and counter-pressing, and perfection… In the centre midfield it was perfect.”

Jurgen Klopp reflected on his team’s utterly deserved 2-0 triumph and yet study of those words will tell the story of the night. Yes, Dortmund had pace, power, desire, and an incredible work ethic. Arsenal produced a little bit of the former, and nowhere near enough of the others. Yes, Dortmund were very, very good, but we certainly allowed them to look it.

What can I say tonight to dispute that? Nothing. Other than, of course, it was one night. Taking a step back from the bitter disappointment of the evening we find ourselves three points off the top of the group with five matches to play, three of which will be at home. Think about that for a second. Our first competitive defeat in fourteen Premier League, FA Cup, and Champions League fixtures straddling the close season. Hopefully it will serve as a massive wake-up call and not prove to be a portent of another miserable season ahead in the big away games.

Let’s hope this increasingly expensively assembled squad will reflect later this week on just why there was a collective lack of effort and execution tonight. We have used such performances down the years to develop a ‘this will not happpen again’ attitude, most famously after a five goal beating at Stoke in our first double season.

Let’s hope we analyse the twenty-four Dortmund chances to our four and identify those in midfield who allowed their men to run at our beleagured defence all night. No names, no pack drill, but what should be as good an attacking midfield as there is in Europe folded tonight, giving oxygen to the argument that we should have done more to secure an out and out holding player in the summer. Yet this was not a performance that would have been made better by one more signing. This was a performance that would have been made better by making more of an effort to control the ball and the pace of the game. The collective failure to do so should not be laid at the door of individuals.

I’m in danger of turning this into a rant, and that is not what most of you who come here expect. I don’t mind us getting a schooling tonight if we use the experience to ensure it isn’t repeated this season. We have what we have in the squad for another three and a half months before we can add what may be missing. I have no doubt we will play much, much better at Villa this weekend, and against Tottenham next. I will next see the boys in the flesh at Stamford Bridge a week later.  The fear tonight is that another tough away test could prove too much for this squad.

Don’t let it be so, Gunners, It’s time to show some cojones.

“Klopp’s team, who have never lost at home to an English club, are chasing an eighth straight European home win in succession… One High Street bookie offers a staggering 20/1 against a good old-fashioned one nil to the Arsenal. I cannot ignore that…”

Written the night before we journeyed to Dortmund ten months ago. We won 1-0. I picked up a nice little earner. Dortmund have now lost at home to an English club. This time around I am not so certain that supporters of either club go into the match confident of the points, such is the havoc wreaked on both squads by injuries.

The hosts are missing a minimum of eight players from their squad, including the influential Hummels (Ironically a target for us, allegedly), Sahin, Reus and Blaszczykowski. For our part we have lost both full-backs from the weekend draw with Manchester City. That means we are down to the bare bones at the back with youngsters Hector Bellerin and Isaac Hayden likely to provide cover on the bench. Looking at Mathieu Flamini limping around in the latter stages against City it is hard to see him starting either although he was not mentioned in the pre-match presser.

Arsene quoted Calum Chambers as a 50/50 chance of starting and had one of those wry smiles when he called tonsilitis as the cause. I would be surprised if the former Southampton lad and Keiran Gibbs do not come into the back four with Mikel Arteta returning in place of Flamini.

Most interesting selection for me, not for the first time will be the chief playmaker. Jack Wilshere was outstanding on Saturday but, cast out predominantly on the wing, Mesut Ozil divides opinion. It is not a new conundrum, nor an Arsenal only one. Through the years club and international managers have been given headaches trying to accommodate the likes of Charlie George, Glenn Hoddle, Tony Currie, Matt Le Tissier. The list is endless and all came in for a degree of stick about their defensive contribution. Ozil is a magnificent creator, he sees passes others don’t. On Saturday he looked different class when coming inside as a link man. I would start him if he were a hundred percent. I’m not sure he is, otherwise he would surely be asked to supply the ammunition for Alexis and Danny Welbeck?

The latter two have been mentioned by the enigmatic Klopp who knows full well he faces a different Arsenal team this time around. The mutual love-in between he and Arsene continued pre-match. There is so much respect between the sides born out of regular meetings in this competition. We have won, lost, and drawn in Dortmund in recent seasons. Predicting the outcome of this one is made more difficult as a result. The bookies have Dortmund as slight favourites, but again the 0-1 away win looks generous at 14/1 as I type. However the ‘holic pound is on 1-2, a decent 12/1 punt I think given that we know the home team will give it a go and we are stronger going forward than defending right now.

I know a fair few who are making an early morning start to get out there. Have a fabulous day, and night. In a passionate football venue make as much noise as you can. I’m more than a little jealous not to be with you.

Have a good one, ‘holics, wherever you will be watching.

The grey of early morn turned into a sunny lunchtime gathering to see if this new-look Arsenal could prove a match for the champions. I said beforehand that much would deprnd on how City, so often negative at the Grove, set-up. Pellegrini showed faith in his selection and had clearly encouraged them to be more adventurous which made for an enthralling contest.

Arsenal too had the bit between their teeth, and driven on by Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey in particular looked as threatening as we have seen this season. City’s defenders were denied time and space as Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez impressively closed them down. Welbeck came close to a dream debut opener but his lob hit the post instead of bouncing in. He can certainly be pleased with his first 87 minutes in an Arsenal shirt.

The only downside to a fascinating contest unfolding before us was the failure of Mark Clattenburg to take action as City repeatedly resorted to fouling in an attempt to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm. Let me say at this juncture I believe him to be far and away the best referee in the Premiership, but his determination to keep eleven versus eleven on the pitch meant he had to overlook multiple offences, particularly by Zabaleta and Milner, the type of which earned others yellow cards on the day. City will argue they might have had a second-half penalty when Jack Wilshere’s arm and ball were in contact. Deliberate? You couldn’t tell from where I was, seventy yards away.

That City took the lead on a break was no surprise to long-time Arsenal followers. Navas made a lightning break down the right and found Aguero at the near post. Arsenal unhinged all too easily, and an indication that City had brought their ‘A’ game. So too had the Gunners and wave after wave of red was unleashed in intricate and determined offence, interspersed with light blue counters that kept the watchers gripped.

The surprise was that it took over an hour for that pressure to pay off. Alexis combined with Ramsey and Wilshere and the latter chipped Hart superbly to level matters. Ten minutes on and we witnessed the first of what we hope will be many magical moments from Alexis. The magnificent Kompany’s clearance was headed back into the box by Wilshere and Alexis explosively volleyed into the top corner. It was a moment that saw wild celebrations both on and off the pitch.

Sadly from that moment on the Arsenal started to run out of steam, as if the sheer effort of turning things around had drained many legs. Mathieu Flamini started to labour, but worse was to come when his namesake, Debuchy, appeared to catch his studs or blades in the lush turf and went down screaming in pain. After he was stretchered off Demichelis was alllowed a free header from a corner, a cruel blow perhaps but City will argue it could have been worse for Arsenal having struck both posts and had a goal ruled out, correctly, for offside as they poured on the pressure in the closing moments.

Arsenal will feel they had restored some pride, given the nature of some of the hidings they took from direct rivals last season. Beforehand I spoke of the need to get Ozil back into the centre. His best work yesterday came when cutting in from the flank, and he was less than enthusiastic about the defensive side of the game. However Arsene persisted with Wishere in the role and was rewarded. If the intention was to give the England international confidence then it has worked spectacularly, if this match is anything to go by.

Back at a packed tavern the talk was of Clattenburg’s performance, and whether Wilshere or Kompany was man of the match. Good as the latter was I will settle for Jack.

Enjoy your Sunday, ‘holics.

Real football returns in the aftermath of the international break, and it couldn’t be much bigger than Arsenal against Manchester City at the Grove. Throw in a potential debut for the scorer of two England goals in the week and you have a match to anticipate with relish. That’s the build-up, now for the reality of the fixture.

Since City were first financed by the Abu Dhabi United Group the results of our meetings at the Grove have been 2-0, 0-0, 0-0, 1-0, 0-2, 1-1. Seven goals in six fixtures is not the goalfest we have come to expect in the return fixture where our determination to play an open game has seen goals galore in recent seasons, culminating in last season’s see-saw 6-3 hiding in a game we might have won by any margin up to 6-7.

City have tended to play it tight at the Grove, relying on the counter-attack when we over extend. The fact they have only one win in that six match sequence might just provide Pellegrini’s men the motive to be more expansive this time around. That, and the fact that they now have Bacary Sagna, as well as Gael Clichy and the odious Nasri, able to offer an insight into Arsene Wenger’s approach to such fixtures. Not that they could help much to help when the two shadow squads met at Wembley in the Community Shield a month ago and we triumphed 3-0.

It is a fair bet this will be a very different match from that. If Aaron Ramsey is fit to start we will possibly be missing just Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud from the likely starting eleven were everybody available. In front of Wojciech Szczesny we can expect a back four of Mathieu Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, and fit-again Kieran Gibbs.

In midfield Mikel Arteta will probably be joined at the base By Rambo, if fit, or Jack Wilshere if not? Personally I would prefer to see Mesut Ozil returned to the advanced playmaking role in which he can pick out the the pace of Alexis Sanchez on the right, debut boy Danny Welbeck in the centre, and the guile of Santi Cazorla on the left. That would represent a change from what Arsene has done thus far, but we haven’t been firing on all cylinders and this may be the approach to get us back in the groove again.

The most realistic options are on the left flank, where the improved Nacho Monreal may get the nod over Gibbs, and either Lukas Podolski or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might be preferred to Santi.

City, obviously title contenders, started the season brightly, beating Newcastle on the road 0-2, then Liverpool at home 3-1, before unexpectedly coming unstuck at home to Stoke City, 0-1, in their last outing. They have lost Jovetic and Fernando to injury, and Negredo as a result of their failure to comply with FFP (according to Pellegrini). Expect Aguero and Dzeko to start up front. Not a bad pairing, in all fairness. Just how ambitous Silva, Nasri, and Yaya Toure are could determine the nature of the contest.

The ‘holic pound is wagered on a float of Friday night stout. I’m drawn to the 2-1 home win on offer at as high as 11/1. That looks generous, with a back-up few coppers on 3-2 at 33′s.

I’m looking forward to seeing a number of you on the day, and for those who cannot make it then I hope you are still able to catch the game with your broadcaster of choice.

Have a good one ‘holics.

The Three Amigos?

The first of the dreaded international breaks for this season is in full flow. Just days after the transfer window has closed we are still being linked with players by sites desperate for hits. That highlights the lack of real news. It isn’t entirely barren out there, however, with Steve Stammers in the Mirror, and James Orr in the Independent, declaring a potential North London derby return to action for Theo Walcott in three weeks time.

Now it is harsh to expect Theo to hit the ground running. Quite whether the level of work he is able to put in now equates to a full pre-season is open to doubt, but with recent additions to the squad there is a delicious prospect of him lining up alongside Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez in a totally interchangeable front three that could cause opposition defenders nightmares.

It isn’t just the fact that the three have blistering pace, the thing that defenders hate most, and it is not just that they can all finish as they have all proven, but it also means that opposing teams may not be allowed the luxury of playing out from the back as all have the ability to press defenders and deny them the time they like to have.

That isn’t to say that those three should be our first choice until Olivier Giroud returns. There are options, particularly on the flanks, and Theo may have to be nursed back to full match fitness, but I don’t mind admitting I am excited about the possibilty of those three striking up an understanding and switching positions every few minutes with devastating effect.

Tactically it adds something to our options as well. If we are to survive the season (well, until January at least) with relatively few defensive options then the more time we can keep the ball in the opposition half can only be advantageous. That defence is an area in which we will need a degree of good fortune if we are to turn promise into a serious title challenge.

For now though let’s just enjoy the horizon, and a mouthwatering opportunity to burn teams with raw attacking power.

A Deadline Day Ode

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the house, every brain was thinking, Arsene. Man or mouse?

Some laptops were broken, their batteries dead; the ice bucket challenger had some ice on his head.

What’s this? The anguished cry of so many, no central defender? the man is a Benny!

No beast of a man, to anchor the middle, oh Arsenal, Gawd’s sake, you boil my piddle.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear, and what, prey, did my Britneys’ hear?

As the three wise men had spotted afar, we had acquired our own bright northern star?

And Lo we had our new striker Danny, oh please be a Wrighty and not a damned Franny.

From the boardroom a cry with deadline day cheer, “Enjoy what you’ve got, you’ll be paying all year.”

Danny Welbeck, welcome to Arsenal son.

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