Preview by Numbers: The Hunt for Top Four

This is a special version of Preview by Numbers, in which we investigate Arsenal's chances of finishing fourth at the end of this season, based on the remaining fixtures to be played. The match preview for this Saturday's game at Liverpool will, as usual, be posted on Friday morning.

The fourth place trophy. Nobody said it was a particularly
nice-looking trophy. Photo: Chris Parry.
We all know that nobody really considers fourth place to be a trophy. You do not get a piece of silverware for just making the Champions League (and not even necessarily the group stage, at that) and it would be ludicrous to compare qualification to the tangibility of a trophy. But, given the low points of this season to date, I think we've all come to terms with the fact that finishing short of fourth place would be the ultimate failing.

The good news? Arsenal sits in fourth place right now, on goals scored (the second tie-breaker,) ahead of Chelsea. With a dozen games to play this season, Arsenal just have to do as well, or better, than the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, and Newcastle, to secure a top four finish.

The bad news? 12 games is a lot and two and a half months is a long time. A lot can change between now and the end of this season and there are a lot of unpredictable factors to remember: injuries for one, form for another. Mathematical prognostication cannot take into account whether or not a team starts to get hot.

Odds of Finishing 4th, By Point Totals

Odds of Arsenal finishing in the Top Four, by number of
points. Click the graph to enlarge.
Let's start by taking a look at what Arsenal needs to do to secure fourth place. The fact that Arsenal already sits in fourth place makes things a bit easier; they control their own destiny. If Arsenal wins all 12 of their remaining games, they will finish in fourth, guaranteed (note that even though they are level now, Arsenal and Chelsea cannot both win all of their remaining games since they play each other on April 21; in this sense, both teams control their own destiny.)

So, what we know is that there is a 100% chance Arsenal finish in the top four if they win all 12 of their remaining matches and end the season with 82 points. But that's impractical. The better question is, how many points will Arsenal need in order to finish top four? For that, we consult Sports Club Stats, a Web site which runs computer simulations based on previous results from this season to determine the odds of clubs finishing at a certain spot in the table.

That link above will take you to the specific Arsenal page. Scroll down and you'll come to a "What If" section, which uses 10 million computer simulations to tell you "if Arsenal finish the season with this many points, this is where they could end up in the table." The "promoted" column for the Premier League actually means the odds of finishing top four. The results of the simulations produce the graph shown above right (you can click it to enlarge.)

The graph shows possible total points at season's end on the X-axis and the corresponding odds of Arsenal finishing in the top four on the Y-axis. You'll see that through about five wins (61 points,) there's still under a 5% chance of finishing in the top four. But by eight wins (70 points,) it's close to 90%. At nine wins, it's almost 99%.

So basically, if Arsenal wins nine of their final 12 games, it's nearly a lock that they'll have Champions League football next year. Even with 10 wins, though, there are some simulations that show Arsenal finishing in fifth, but the odds of that are microscopic. The magic number right now looks like eight to nine wins. And honestly, if Arsenal wins nine times from here on out and it's not enough, then really, that means a rival team went on an absurdly impressive run.

Is Nine Wins Plausible?

It looks, for our purposes, like nine wins and 73 points should be enough to see Arsenal through to at least the Champions League playoff at this point. In reality, it may end up being less; Arsenal finished fourth with 68 points last year. Even still, it sounds like a bit much, doesn't it? Is it plausible for Arsenal to win three-quarters of their remaining games? In a word, yes. Arsenal have already won nine out of a 12 match span at one point this season, between late September and late December (a stretch that included wins over Bolton, Sunderland, Stoke, Chelsea, West Brom, Norwich, Wigan, Everton, and Aston Villa and a draw with Fulham. Their two losses in that stretch were to Spurs and City.)

To investigate whether they could pull off that feat again (which would actually total to 12 wins from 15, considering Arsenal have currently won three straight in the league,) we need to look at their strength of schedule. Just how difficult will these 12 matches be?

Upcoming opponent's points per game.
Home and Away is for Arsenal.
To accomplish this, we look at points per game earned by the opponents either at home or on the road, depending on where the match will be. We'll start with Arsenal's massive match at Anfield on Saturday. Liverpool are currently in seventh, but have a game in hand. Even still, an Arsenal win on Saturday would move them 10 points clear of the Merseyside Reds. Liverpool have not lost at home this year, but they also haven't won all that much at Anfield either: four wins and eight draws. That's 20 points in 12 matches, or a points per game total of 1.667.

We extend this process to Arsenal's other 11 matches that follow to determine the average quality of their opponents. Newcastle visit the Emirates on March 12; they've picked up 1.385 points per game on their road travels. If you take the average of Arsenal's remaining opponents, it comes to 1.254 points per game. For Liverpool, their 13 opponents average to 1.291 points per game. For Newcastle, it's 1.365 points per game. For Chelsea, it's 1.408 points per game, weighted by the fact that they still have to play Manchester City at Eastlands, where they have not lost this year.

These numbers mean that on the face of things, Arsenal's run-in is easier than their rivals for fourth.

But that's just one side of the equation. Yes, QPR's home points per game is lower than Wigan's away points per game, but which fixture will be the most winnable for Arsenal: QPR at Loftus Road or Wigan at the Emirates? It has to be the latter, right? That's why you need to take Arsenal's home and road record into account as well.

Arsenal's points per game home or
away minus their opponent's points
per game away or home. Games at
Emirates Stadium are, therefore,
inherently more winnable than road
This chart shows the difference between Arsenal's points per game and their opponents' points per game, taking into account which team is home and which team is away. The higher the difference in Arsenal's favor, you can argue the more winnable it is for Arsenal. This means that Arsenal's most winnable game left on the schedule is Wigan at home (+1.385) and their least winnable game is Saturday's (-0.359.) Of course, all of these numbers change with each result, so by the time each game is played, it's hard to tell which ones will actually be more winnable.

The average "winnability" of Arsenal's remaining games gives you +0.515. For Chelsea, it's +0.361. For Newcastle, it's +0.288. For Liverpool, it's +0.281. This again shows that Arsenal's run-in looks easier than their rivals' run-in.

But again, averaging out how "mathematically winnable" a game is basically means nothing in the grand scheme of things. You can't win games on paper (or blog posts.) Sure, it's good news for Arsenal that their run-in isn't terrifying. This is aided by the fact that they play most of the big boys (Chelsea, City, and to an extent, Newcastle) at the Emirates.

But, we still need to go back to the crux of this blog post:

Can You Pick Out From Where the Nine Wins Come?

If Arsenal needs to win nine games to clinch fourth, can you look at the fixtures list, circle a bunch of games and say "there they are. Nine wins"?

Not quite.

I can, however, point to six games that Arsenal must win if they have fourth place aspirations. They are, at the heart of it, the three most winnable home games and the three most winnable road games: Wigan at home on April 14, Aston Villa at home on March 24, Norwich at home on May 5, QPR away on March 31, Wolves away on April 11, and West Brom away on May 13.  These six games have to be wins if Arsenal are serious about playing in the Champions League next season.

From there, it's a matter of finding three wins from the remaining six matches; in order of winnability, they are: Newcastle at home on March 12, Chelsea at home on April 21, Manchester City at home on April 8, Stoke City away on April 28, Everton away to be arranged, and Liverpool away on Saturday. Note that home games are considered more inherently winnable, as Arsenal have picked up 2.23 points per game at home this year and 1.31 points per game on their travels.

If Arsenal can beat their rivals for fourth spot: Liverpool this weekend, Newcastle next week, and Chelsea at the end of April, then that would make nine. Plus, preventing your rivals from picking up points only reduces how many points you yourself need to pick up. Everton away feels like it would be a good statement win as well. Stoke away, though, is always dicey; I'd never expect a win at the Britannia, to be brutally honest. Not while they have those towels.

If Arsenal wins at Anfield on Saturday, these numbers change drastically for the better. If they lose, they, of course, change for the worse. They'll still need nine wins from 11 games, while simultaneously allowing Liverpool back into the race.

In either case, there are nine wins to go. Let's get them.

Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham: Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta!

I think the most amazing thing about today is that we didn't even have to buy the poor sods dinner and a movie first.

Before we go on, an optional soundtrack to this blog post:

It was a bit of a different team out there today - Kieran Gibbs and Laurent Koscielny both passed late fitness tests, so the defense picked itself. Yossi Benayoun got a rare start in the center midfield three, while Tomas Rosicky continued out on the wing.

The side started off slowly, as Tottenham tore into us from the off. The same lethargy that permeated through the side in the AC Milan and Sunderland games was in effect again. When Tottenham scored four minutes in, at the time, it wasn't that much of a surprise.

In fairness to us though, it was a bit of a fluke. Our old enemy Emmanuel Adebayor moved down the left-hand side, on the counter, with Koscielny in attendance. The Frenchman fell over in the wake of an admittedly-good move from the Togolese striker, and Spurs were away. The rest of the Arsenal defense were nowhere to be seen, having pushed way too far up. Adebayor passed it centrally to Louis Saha, but Thomas Vermaelen's desperate sliding block would have cleared it away 99 times out of 100. This time, of course, it looped into the air and caught Wojceich Szczesny off his line.

Needless to say, that was not the start we needed.

Still, Arsenal recovered enough to continue to contest things fairly evenly. Nine minutes in, we had a pretty strong penalty shout turned down by Mike Dean when Gibbs was bundled over in the area by Kyle Walker. I know, Dean fucking us over, I'm stunned too.

It was around here when, in the words of former WWE announcer Jim Ross, "business began to pick up". Szczesny flapped at a free kick and missed, and immediately thereafter they had a free kick taken quickly that caught out everyone but TV5. Arsenal were still swinging back though, with van Persie just putting his own rebound the wrong side of the post after his first effort was blocked by the defense.

The next two minutes saw two more chances for the men in red. Bacary Sagna's throw-in to RVP saw the Dutchman school Parker, but his shot was deflected by Younes Kaboul out for a corner. Off that corner, Tomas Rosicky of all people had a completely free header in a good location, but Brad Friedel showed impossibly-fast reflexes to claw it over the crossbar.

I mean, are you kidding me? Heads dropped some there, but we were still in the game.

The visitors were still a threat though, with Kyle Walker just missing a rebound after Adebayor forced Szczesny into a save. Up the other end, RVP got fouled by Scott Parker, earning Ward Cleaver a booking (foreshadowing alert!). We didn't do anything on the free kick, the importance of which was inflated at the time by the fact that the Scum doubled their lead a minute or two later.

Luka Modric played a brilliant pass into our penalty area, into the path of Gareth Bale. The primate-looking fucker got past Kieran Gibbs, and around the dive of Szczesny. Neither man touched him, but he still hurtled over as if a sniper from the roof had gotten him. Adebayor stepped up to take the penalty, and as he was placing it on the spot, Szczesny reminded me why I adore him so much. Clearly angry at the injustice of the call, he let Dean have a piece of his mind before beating his chest at Adebayor, daring the man to beat him. Adebayor did indeed do that with a fantastically-struck penalty, but the show of spirit from our young goalie was admirable and at least showed us that someone on the Gunners cared.

You know, it's weird. If the second goal conceded had just been a run-of-the-mill goal or even worse from a defensive breakdown, I think we might have done our usual collapsing act. The fact that the penalty was bullshit of the highest order though...I don't know, I think it may have galvanized the side.

Theo Walcott, as has been his wont all season, infuriated us with a play that had summed up much of our play this season. He latched onto a poor pass, and knocked it past a static Ledley King. If he knocked it ahead and used his pace, he was completely away and in alone on Friedel. Instead, he passed it laterally to RVP, who had about 163 defenders on him. Groans were lifted to the air (well, more like to the Pig's funky tiled ceiling, but you know what I mean).

I didn't think it was over, but I did think we were in a whole lot of trouble. We needed a moment of magic, a display of character from someone to haul us back into the contest.

Bacary Sagna gave us that moment.

Walcott's pass to van Persie this time saw the Dutchman with enough space to shoot from his favored left foot, but his shot agonizingly hit off the foot of the post. My exhortations of dismay led me to turn my eyes away from the screen for a few seconds. Apparently the ball stayed in play, and when I turned back, the Scum were all over the shop defensively. Benayoun looped a teasing cross into the area, and out of nowhere Sagna got absolutely everything behind his header. Friedel had no chance, and in seconds the momentum of the match tilted palpably.

I have to give this Arsenal team credit on the day. Whatever else has happened this season, they smelled a few drops of blood in a game of this magnitude and went into an absolute frenzy for the rest of the match. The lethargy was gone, replaced with relentless pressing, crisp passing and a determined directness to their play. Spurs may finish above us this season still, but today was a reminder that we have a gear that they just won't ever have.

Speaking of which, Arsenal were level three minutes later. Benoit Assou-Ekotto couldn't clear his lines, with his header landing right at RVP's feet. What happened next was a freakish reminder of another Dutch bloke who used to play up top for us - a shimmy, a half-turn, and a shot that deliciously curled away from the dive of Friedel and back inside the post. Fuck me, what a goal that was! It was another moment of sheer quality from a man who has given us so many of them this season.

That took us to halftime, and the visitors looked shell-shocked. We won't ever know what either manager said to their charges at halftime, but from this point on I knew we weren't going to lose this game. Harry Redknapp made two changes at halftime, Saha and Niko Krancjar replaced by Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart. Clearly, this was an attempt to get settled in the midfield again...but it didn't remotely work.

Two minutes into the second half, Spurs were cut to ribbons again, and again had their blushed spared only by Friedel's brilliance. This time, Mikael Arteta's through-ball found Benayoun in the area. The Israeli, who had a storming game, opened his body and dinked a lovely daisy-cutter towards the near corner. Friedel palmed it away to safety, sadly.

No matter, though. A blink of the eye later, Arsenal got the lead they would not relinquish. A rampaging run from Tomas Rosicky (that's not a typo, trust me!) went unchecked by the men in white. He laid it off to Sagna on the right, who crossed it in. Rosicky stole a march on his defender and just snuck ahead of him. Friedel came out expecting to scoop up the ball, but Rosicky toe-poke was just enough to redirect the ball past the big American and in.

Would you bloody believe it?

The joy on Tommy's face illuminated both the Blind Pig and our collective mood. If the Arsenal were rampant before, then their tails were well and truly up now. At no point thereafter was there ever more than one team in this game. Spurs looked like a haunted team, less chasing shadows than running in terror from them.

I wish you could see the smile on my face as I write this. I mean, I'm giddy...absolutely swimming in endorphins. This is why we invest so much of ourselves into all this, isn't it?

Anyway, Walcott saw another effort go wide of the post a bit later, but soon enough he was celebrating the goal that put his side two goals to the good. Tottenham had poured men forward in search of the equalizer, leaving them exposed to Rosicky's looped pass over the top. RVP faced off against the recovering Walker and King with the ball at his feet, and held it long enough for Walcott's late run to arrive. RVP played the simplest of balls over, but Walcott had the first touch of a woolly mammoth, sending it out wide. Still, he corralled the ball and chipped a gorgeous shot over Friedel and in. Like with Rosicky, unbridled catharsis came off of Walcott in waves. He's gotten a lot of stick lately and rightfully so, but that was a legitimately brilliant finish.

Walcott wasn't finished, though. With the visitors reeling, the young winger doubled his tally just three minutes later. It was almost a mirror image of the first goal, this time the looped ball over the top coming from Alex Song. RVP's intervention was not required this time, as the pass went directly to Walcott. The Spurs defense was nowhere with 17 postal codes of Walcott, leaving him time and space to hammer in his favored low diagonal finish past Friedel's outstretched leg and into the far corner.

Pick that one out!

The game was largely a procession from there, with Arsenal taking their feet off the pedal just a tad against a Spurs team with no interest in fighting back. Carl Jenkinson made a return to the side in place of Gibbs, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to give Walcott his richly-deserved standing ovation. It may be a little bit churlish to complain about the third substitution, but was this not the perfect opportunity to get Marouane Chamakh and/or Ju-Young Park on and see if this good feeling rubbed off on them at all? I like Gervinho and he'll be important for us in the run-in, but he did not need to come on in my opinion.

Still, that's a small worry today. The hilarity was complete when Scott Parker got a second yellow for scything down RVP...but in fairness, he showed a lot of class by displaying more concern for RVP's well-being than he did for the fact that he was off. You can slate me for saying this about a Spurs player all you want, but I wish we had signed him when we had the chance.

Enough about their lot, though. How awesome of a performance was that in the last 50 minutes of the game? How great was Benayoun? And Rosicky? And RVP? And Gibbs? And Walcott?

Seriously, Benayoun HAS to stay in the team now. HAS TO. Liverpool away is going to be a tough one, and three points are going to be desperately needed in our battle to stay in fourth.

In the meantime though, let's enjoy this. We can analyze and discuss the long-term ramifications about this at another time, we can sagely nod to each other about the overall state of the season later. Today, we revel in one simple phrase:

You mad, Spurs?

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 7 (Jenkinson 7), Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 9, Rosicky 8, Song 7, Arteta 7, Benayoun 8 (Gervinho N/A), Walcott 9 (Oxlade-Chamberlain 7), van Persie 9

Man of the Match: This is one of those times where it is gloriously-difficult to pick one. RVP's goal was sublime, Rosicky emphatically ended his goal drought to give us the lead (and cap off a battling midfield performance), Benayoun easily had his best game in an Arsenal shirt, pulling strings in the middle. But, when we were down 2-0, one man stepped up and counted when it really fucking mattered. One man planted an unstoppable header to give us our belief back and plant that seed of doubt in the Tottenham "defense". One man did that AND assisted on the winning goal. Ladies and gentlemen, Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, Braids of gold, WOAH! Nah, nah Bacary Sagna!

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Tottenham Hotspur

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, February 26
8:30 a.m. EST, 1:30 p.m. GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Steve Child and Simon Long
    • 4th Official: Phil Dowd
  • Reverse Fixture: Tottenham 2 - 1 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 2 - 3 Tottenham
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 69 Arsenal wins, 53 Tottenham wins, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-L-L-D-W-W
  • Tottenham's League Form: W-D-L-W-D-W
We're getting way too used to images like this one.
Photo: Daily Mail.
So. Big game, this.

When was the last time a North London derby had this much riding on it for Arsenal? The Gunners have had an extremely trying week, digging themselves a massive hole against Milan in Europe, then crashing meekly out of the FA Cup in Sunderland. Now, fourth place is essentially all Arsenal has to play for this season. But, if you want to put a positive spin on things, Arsenal do sit in fourth place right now, so it's not like they have to gain ground on anybody. They just have to do as well as Chelsea, Newcastle, and Liverpool from here on out.

But, given Arsenal's performances of late, do you really trust them to match results with some of these other sides (though, have you seen Chelsea lately?) That's why getting back on the right track in the league right away is so important.

That's why this is going to be a season defining game for Arsenal.

There are really only two ways this kind of game can go. An Arsenal win can be a springboard moving forward. An Arsenal loss can seriously damage this team's aspirations. A draw can go in either of these directions, depending on how it's played out. There's really no other way around it. It won't be possible to feel any sort of middle-ground mediocre after this game. It'll either be a really high high or a really low low. So, let's hope for the former and reclaim North London for the red and white.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Squillaci (groin), Ramsey (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Santos (ankle), Diaby (hamstring), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle)
Doubts: Gibbs (knock), Chamakh (toe), Koscielny (knee)

Really, Kieran Gibbs might not be fit again? Really?
Photo: Telegraph.
Oh look, nine players are out with injuries. Three more face fitness tests. How about that...

Arsenal have lost seven of those 12 names in the past two weeks. Laurent Koscielny picked up his knee injury at Milan, but is in contention to start on Sunday. Rumors are he'll pass fit, but it's too early to be certain. Kieran Gibbs was going to play for the reserves this week, but he picked up a knock in training and now he too faces a fitness test. Marouane Chamakh did play in that reserves match, but came in carrying a toe injury and left on the half hour mark.

That reserves match was a 5-0 win over Norwich with a very strong line-up that included Chamakh, Ju Young Park, Andrei Arshavin, and Yossi Benayoun, not to mention 45 minutes for Carl Jenkinson, who is on his way back from his... er... back... injury.

Last week, all three Arsenal substitutions came because of injuries. Francis Coquelin was first, looking like he pulled his hamstring as he had against Leeds in January. I haven't heard anything, but it's probably three weeks again. Sebastien Squillaci came on, messed things up for a while, then left with his own groin injury that should keep him far away from the pitch for this one. Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey picked up a knock to his ankle in the Sunderland match as well, and while I haven't heard anything yet, my feeling is that he's going to be missing this one, too.

Meanwhile, it looks like Per Mertesacker's season with Arsenal is done, since he's right now just proclaiming that he'll be fit to play for Germany in Euro 2012. None of the long-term injuries look ready to return just yet.

The number of big names playing for the reserves this week has brought up the question of squad rotation. We did not see the likes of Andrei Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun in the listless display in the FA Cup last week.

Arsenal's best case scenario for the line-up would involve both Koscielny and Gibbs passing fit, otherwise the back four will be a mess (it would be Vermaelen on the left with Song and Djourou in the middle.) No Ramsey could mean a start for Tomas Rosicky or maybe Benayoun or Arshavin. Which two wingers will start among Gervinho, the Ox, and Theo? Questions, questions, questions... so many questions, I feel it would be pointless to venture a guess at the starting squad right now.

Tottenham Squad News

Out: Bentley (knee), Gallas (calf), Jenas (Achilles), Huddlestone (ankle)
Doubts: Adebayor (knee), Assou-Ekotto (groin), Modric (illness), Sandro (calf), van der Vaart (calf), King (calf)

Photo: Daily Mail.
Despite being listed as doubts, what do you think are the odds that players like Emmanuel Adeabyor (knee injury) and Rafael van der Vaart (calf injury) actually miss a match like this? Tottenham's doubt list looks larger than normal because they're coming off an FA Cup match where a lot of the bigger names were rested with knocks (that worked out well for them, no?)

Among the other doubts, Benoit Assou-Ekotto had minor groin surgery and Spurs will sweat over his late fitness test. Luka Modric missed last week with the "flu," so he's probably more likely than not. Captain Ledley King is always 50/50 with some sort of injury. Brazilian midfielder Sandro has struggled with a calf injury all year.

Tottenham have four long term injuries, which includes ex-Arsenal ex-Chelsea defender William Gallas, out with a calf injury. Tom Huddlestone is out as well. Jermaine Jenas was on loan, but sent back to Spurs from Aston Villa after rupturing his Achilles.

Continuing punchline David Bentley is out with a knee injury which he suffered on loan at West Ham. Spurs were considering loaning him to the MLS.

Current Form

Spurs failed to win at...the circus? last week.
Photo: Daily Mail.
I have found it very difficult to talk about form in recent weeks, mostly because the trends have been so bizarre. Arsenal had a stirring comeback in the FA Cup against Aston Villa, only to go out a few days later and lay an egg against Bolton. Then, they scored seven goals against a beleaguered Blackburn side, beat Sunderland at the death a week later, and then promptly forgot how to play the sport again over the next two matches. Make up your mind! What team are you gonna be this week? All that craziness aside, Arsenal have won their last two in the league, and will look to win three straight for the first time since their five match winning streak in October-November.

Arsenal have not played at home since that 7-1 thrashing of ten man Blackburn. They have won 15 of 21 home matches this season, losing three (Liverpool, United, and City in the Carling Cup) and drawing three (Marseille, Fulham, and Wolves.)

Aside from beating Watford (barely) in the FA Cup, Spurs have not won away from home since December 27 against Norwich. Let's break this down, match by match, going back to December. Spurs lost at Stoke 2-1 on December 11 (you can blame that damn cyclist referee!,) then beat Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League on the 15th. Their next away game was a win at Norwich on the 27th. On New Year's Eve, they drew at Swansea. Then, their next away game was on January 22, when a late penalty sent them to a loss at Manchester City. This was followed by the close win at Watford, a 0-0 draw at Anfield, and a 0-0 draw at Stevenage.

Overall in the league, Spurs have six wins on their travels, but have dropped points on six occasions as well, drawing three and losing three. They have not won on the road against any team in the top seven.

Match Facts

Great moments in North London derby history.
Oh, Rocky Rocky... Photo: Arsenal Collective.
Tottenham Hotspur have not done the league double over Arsenal since 1993. Even in spite of that, Arsenal knocked Spurs out of the FA Cup in the semifinal that season. That being said, Spurs have had the better mix of results in the derby over the last few seasons. Tottenham won the reverse fixture this season, 2-1 at White Hart Lane. Rafael van der Vaart opened the scoring despite a handball in the build-up, Aaron Ramsey equalized in the second half despite having a poor match on the whole, but Spurs won it late on a long range goal from Kyle Walker that Wojciech Szczesny really should have stopped.

Last year, Spurs took four out of six points from Arsenal in the league, coming from two goals down on both occasions to win at the Emirates in November and draw at the Lane in April. Arsenal had previously knocked Spurs out of the Carling Cup in extra time at White Hart Lane that September.

Arsenal's last league win over Tottenham came on Halloween 2009. Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas scored a minute apart late in the first half, as Arsenal went on to win 3-0. Spurs won the reverse of that fixture in April 2010, 2-1. You may recall Danny Rose's wonder-goal in that match, during which I just found myself yelling at Manuel Almunia for not catching the cross in the first place, his punch out setting up Rose's strike.

The Referee

Here's a screengrab of John Terry trying to grab the red
card out of Mike Dean's hand. This picture is just full of
fail. Photo: Who Ate All the Pies.
The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean, harbinger of Arsenal doom. Arsenal's record with Mike Dean as the referee now stands at one win from 13 across all competitions; that win was last January, in the FA Cup replay at Championship side Leeds United. The last time Arsenal beat a top flight side with Dean as the referee was in November of 2008, as the Gunners beat Chelsea 2-1 at the Bridge, with Robin van Persie's second half brace canceling out a first half own goal from Johan Djourou.

I've documented this stretch of matches pretty much every time Arsenal gets Mike Dean, so this is like beating a dead horse. But, here is the rundown, yet again: 0-0 draw at Spurs, 0-0 draw at Manchester United, 2-1 loss at Manchester United, 1-1 draw at Burnley, 2-0 loss at Chelsea, 0-0 draw with Manchester City, 2-0 loss at Chelsea, 1-0 loss to Newcastle, the one win over Leeds, the loss in the Carling Cup Final last year, the reverse fixture of this week at Spurs, the 1-1 draw with Fulham in November, and the 2-1 loss to United last month.

As for Tottenham, he has worked two matches this year and Spurs have won both (both were at White Hart Lane.) They beat Arsenal in the reverse fixture with Dean, then in December, beat Sunderland 1-0 with the balding man in the middle.

For a great, in-depth piece on Mike Dean, check out this piece from October, written before Arsenal dropped three more games with Dean in the middle.

Around the League

Sheffield Wednesday was the last non-top flight side to
win a domestic cup, winning the League Cup in 1991.
Photo: Down By 20.
The North London derby serves as the prelude into the Carling Cup Final, pitting Liverpool against Championship side Cardiff City at Wembley. The last time a team from outside of the top flight won a domestic cup in England was in 1991, when Sheffield Wednesday won the League Cup over Manchester United, 1-0. Liverpool's involvement in the final means the team they would have played in the league this weekend, Everton, will have the weekend off.

That means there are only eight other league fixtures this weekend instead of nine, and oddly, two others will be played on Sunday. That includes Manchester United's visit to Carrow Road to face Norwich, which kicks off at the same time as the North London derby, followed by Stoke City taking on Swansea at 10:00 a.m. Both of these matches were moved to Sunday due to United and Stoke's involvement in the Europa League.

Manchester City's Europa League second leg with Porto was played on Wednesday instead of Thursday for some reason, which allows City to play on Saturday this weekend. They'll play in the late game as they host Blackburn Rovers at Eastlands. There's no early game (that would have been the Liverpool derby,) so the other matches are the five played in Saturday's normal time slot. They include Chelsea hosting Bolton at the Bridge, Newcastle hosting Wolves at Not St. James' Park (you'll get arrested if you spray paint that it is,) QPR hosting Fulham in a West London derby, West Brom hosting Sunderland at the Hawthorns, and Wigan hosting Aston Villa at the DW.

Root Causes - A Time to Go Reprisal

Long-time readers know that I've been down this road November of 2010, in fact. I don't like being the proverbial broken record, but given that this side has become one themselves, it's somewhat unavoidable.

It's not that my opinion on the matter is drastically different than it was fifteen months ago - it's just that I read this, followed by this...and then was passed along this by my roommate. Then, that was followed by a discussion on Facebook with some of the Blind Pig regulars, in which I started to outline the basic premise of what I'm going to talk about here.

I posit that the problem isn't down to the players...the personnel in place should easily accomplish fourth place at the bare minimum. No sir, for me, the root cause of our woes comes down to one man and one man only...Le Boss.

Again, (and it's tedious that any criticism has to come with this caveat attached like a remora), this doesn't mean that I don't appreciate everything he's done for the club, and it doesn't mean I think it's right to call him a see-you-next-Tuesday like the dimmer members of our fanbase do in these troubled times.

It just means that I don't think he's the right man for the job anymore.

There's several different factors occurring in parallel here, so for simplicity's sake I will tackle them one at a time:

A Remarkable Talent for Putting Out Fire with Petrol: Exhibit A here is the first link I posted. I honestly don't know at this point if we're being trolled or if this is his actual belief. It's a matter of perspective - were this The Modern Black Cat or The Modern Villain, there would be an exponentially deeper level of truth behind the idea of fourth place as "a trophy". I keep coming back to it, but a club of our resources doesn't have the same standards applied to it - especially in this day and age of financial segregation. Put more succinctly, you don't get to charge the highest ticket prices in Europe on one hand and on the other trumpet...well, not even fourth place, but the increasingly-remote possibility of finishing there.

I mean, Jesus bloody wept.

Here's the thing with that...this isn't the 1970s anymore. Back then, you could spend a few years in the footballing wilderness and still be within the power of the right manager or the right few players of a return to the happy end of the table. Case in point: In 1969-70, Arsenal finished in 12th place, 24 points behind the champions Everton (remember, it was 2 points for a win in those days). The very next season, the Gunners walked away with the First Division trophy.

For the most part, clubs competed on a even playing field financially. The European Cup was a nice side adventure, but it did not mean entry into a completely different footballing strata than your peers.

These days? It's calcified to the point where there are almost insurmountable walls between the VIP part of the club and the common rabble. Returning to the decade of my birth (just), there were 6 different league champions in the 1970s (if you count 69-70 and 79-80). If you expand that to the top three, that adds 7 more clubs for a total of 13. Compare that to the entire Premier League era, which goes back to 1992-93: 4 clubs have won the title, and a further 7 have finished in the top three...11 in all.

Let me reiterate that: two fewer clubs made it even into the top three in the last 19 seasons than there were in a random 11-year stretch back at or near the 70s. The bouncer working the door just got a whole lot meaner, folks.

With that in mind, to claim for what is not the first time that fourth place is a trophy...bloody hell,'s not a trophy, it's a trap door. One step away from the precipice. Don't look down, Wile E. Coyote.

Beyond that, how many times do we have to hear about mental strength and handbrakes and our poor sods having to play a couple of games in a short period of time (you know, like every other major club in the world) before it starts to become self-parody? And those quotes about how it would be hard for any team in the world when Abou Diaby has played no can you hear that without steam coming out of your ears?

Some of it is protecting the players...I get it. But if I thought for one second that any accountability was meted out to this lot behind closed doors, I'd feel infinitely better about it. I remain skeptical that anything of the sort is happening. So, what we're left with is an increasingly-infuriating reel of soundbites that is poking an already fractured and agitated fanbase with a sharp stick.

What's the value in it? Is it tone-deafness or something else? And not to pile on, but those other quotes popping up along the lines of "I'm getting advice from people who've never managed a game"...sure, there's an element of truth to it. But, how many other major managers bust that one out? How does it not come across as defensive to the point of vulnerability? Sometimes I wish he'd let Ricey do the talking.

The Likelihood That He's Been Passed By Tactically: The second link I included in the open was one of those rare pieces from the land of mainstream journalism that cut through the "ZOMG CRISIS CLUB" level to present a cogent and frankly frightening case that Arsenal don't have an identity, tactically speaking.

On some level, it seems that we emulate the Barcelona tiki-taka approach. I admit to not ing Barcelona much on the grounds of my undying hatred towards their football club. But, the little I have seen has shown a team that attacks with purpose and with a flurry of movement off the ball. What we have is a glacially-paced possession game that allows lesser sides to pack everyone including the tea lady behind the ball, with nine dudes standing around while the man with the ball futilely decides what to do with the two or three defenders pressing him.

Also, we don't exactly have Xavi pulling the strings for Leo Messi.

I've leveled a similar charge towards Chelsea in the past - go back and read the 3-5 match report if you disbelieve. Needless to say, it's not shocking to me that they're in a similar place to us right now. The league's on to them too, which is the only reason why I think we still might sneak into fourth place.

It used to be that we could get down into the trenches and win a tight game on a counter-attack or via a more direct route if the showpiece stuff didn't come off. Now? There's a Plan A, and if that doesn't work...well, did I mention we have a Plan A?

I mean, he's never been known as a manager who is on the cutting edge of tactics. The inimitable Red Geezer had that sussed out back in 1998:

And us? Well, we’ve come to realise that Wenger doesn’t really cut his cloth to fit. He plays his best team and lets everyone else worry about tactics. It’s taken us lot a season to realise what he does.

Here's my theory: While he started in 1984 with Nancy, Arsene really cut his teeth with Monaco from 1987-94. The midpoint of that run was 1990 - which was perhaps the apex of shitty, awful, boring and defensive football in the entire history of the game. The World Cup final that year is arguably the exact antithesis of Wenger's footballing philosophy (and also arguably the single worst high-profile game ever played).

Back then, the idea of committing to attack itself was a novel idea. Don't get me wrong - I'm not trying to detract from his sparkling career overall, or his persistence in dragging the sport away from the idea of post-match pies and pints. What I'm saying is that the lads from Zonal Marking wouldn't have had a whole lot to work with back in 1990 - it honestly was a much simpler game back then.

His stint in Japan lends itself further to this theory, I believe. While I don't claim to be an expert in Japanese football, I can tell you that most of the guys who have gone on to have European careers - Hidetoshi Nakata and Shinji Ono spring to mind - have been attackers or midfielders. I have a decent knowledge of the game, but I cannot recall a single Japanese defender that made an impact on the Continent.

These days, that won't fly. Even the mid-table sides that used to roll over for us are largely winning the tactical battles - everything is uphill now. That isn't even getting into the substitution patterns, the lack of flexibility (still playing a high line at Old Trafford even after they had already scored 5 or 6) or the other bizarre foibles such as playing central strikers out on the wing.

Spend Some Bloody Money: This one's been done to death. It's still no less true. Maybe one day the Politburo veil of secrecy will finally be pierced and we'll know for certain that we either had no money, or our last bunch of transfer windows were really one man's howling at the moon of the game's new economic reality.

Until then, I'm working off of the assumption that we can't afford a Sergio Aguero type, but we could bring in capable, professional reinforcements if we wanted to. Still, I think that's only a small part of it in the end...

A Chronic Failure to Make the Best Use of What We Have: Yes, really. Yes, I include people in this that you might be surprised to here.

The most obvious point here lies with the defense. For me, Wojceich Szczesny, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker and Bacary Sagna are a class above most Premier League defenses in ability. But, we still give up ridiculous, schoolboy goals and still cannot defend simple set pieces. We conceded 43 goals last season, and 41 the one before that. It's only getting worse - we're at 35 already this term, which would put us on pace for 53 goals against.

This isn't headline news - Arsenal's defense is as much of a long-standing punchline as Newcastle's used to be. It would be one thing if we had First Division-level journeymen cloggers in there, but the fact of the matter is that we make mistakes that, say, Norwich never would. One can only imagine how many more points we'd have this season (and how many trophies we might have won in the last 6 years) if we just had some basic fundamental solidity among our backline.

I mean, no one is asking these questions. We know Sebastien Squillaci sucks now, but what turned a capable Champions League-experienced international defender into the shambling mess we have now? What turned The Verminator into the guy pratfalling all over the San Siro turf the other day? Why has Johan Djourou gone from a promising young center-half who occasionally had tremendous games to a guy I wouldn't trust to defend my seat at the bar while I went to take a piss?

It's not just the defense, either. Why is it that Andrei Arshavin can be a potent attacking force for Russia but a disinterested passenger for us? Why is Theo Walcott so maddeningly inconsistent, and why is a guy whose pace is his only weapon playing in a team who as mentioned operates at such a glacial pace? Why can Marouane Chamakh show flashes of predatory ability early on his Arsenal career, and end up a broken shell of a man?

Look, I'm not saying that there shouldn't be some accountability towards the players themselves. Hell, I'm the first one screaming for it here on a regular basis. But, who is the guy who pays them insane wages before they've accomplished the square root of fuck all? Who is the one who puts them straight back into the team after a bad game (don't tell me "because there is no one else" - that may be true, but if anything it's another damning indictment on the manager). Doesn't it seem telling when it's not just one or two players whose confidence and form is in free-fall, but the whole side barring RVP (who is cooling off himself, since we're on the subject). Isn't it incumbent on the manager to help bring a team out of the doldrums by means of the hairdryer or the arm around the shoulder when needed?

We'll never know what's going on behind closed doors...but the table doesn't lie, and it hasn't for six years.

Inevitably, anyone with an opinion like mine is going to be told the old chestnut that "no one else out there is better". Like fun, there isn't. The elephant in the room is that Jose Mourinho is likely a goner in Madrid after this season. You can call me anything you want, but the truth of the matter is that I'd cut off my right goddamn arm to have him manage the club next season if that's the case. He'd sort out this locker room in about six-tenths of a nanosecond, I'll tell you that much.

I honestly believe you could throw a rock at the Bundesliga and hit four managers who could do this job.

I honestly believe David Moyes would be brilliant with this club...especially if the financial constraints are as bad as rumored. The fact that he's kept that ragtag batch of misfits up around the decent end of the table despite a transfer budget that wouldn't get a meal at McDonald's is amazing to me.

Of course, no new manager (Mourinho included) would be a certainty. I'll tell you what is a certainty though - every season for the last six years, we have slowly circled the drain as we've lost faith, lost games, lost finals and lost players. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Well? What are you expecting will be different? Will "no, really, next year we're totally going to do it" ever really be the case? It's been next year for six years, with no sign of stopping.

If we're going to be kicked out of the VIP section of the club, I don't want to go so damned meekly. I want us to smash a barstool over someone's head and insult the bouncer's mother on the way out. Why not hire Mourinho and see what he can do? Why not hire Moyes and see if he can work his magic at a slightly higher level (let's not fool ourselves, it's not that much higher these days).

It can't be worse than where we're at know, at the dictionary definition of insanity.

Sunderland 2-0 Arsenal: Nope, Chuck Testa!

This is who we are, folks. Until the personnel or the management of this club massively changes, this is what we will be as seasons go by - an above-average side in talent who flatters to deceive in the beginning of the season until the winter...when every club in England remembers all at once that we have the mental solidity of plywood and attacks us in earnest.

Sure, we'll have the occasional moment where we blacken the eyes of a big side, but doesn't that win at Stamford Bridge look a whole lot less impressive in retrospect now?

Actually, what I should amend to the above is that each season will find diminishing returns as we keep losing our best players - honestly, what reason on earth does Robin van Persie have to stay with us next season? Next season we may get by on what Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can give us and how many Wojceich Szczesny can keep out...but 2-3 years from now, what reason do they have to stay?

Through it all, there will always be those who say "give it one more year, give it one more year". How many years do we give them? I mean, I've been doing this here for a year and a half or so, and previously off and on I've blogged on my own sites as well. You all surely can't be less tired of reading about our inability to defend, our endless string of injuries that doesn't seem to happen to other sides, our over-reliance on one player, our multiple passengers on the team, our utter lack of a Plan B, our mystifying substitution patterns and our manager who blames everything and anything except the reflection in his mirror as I am of writing about them.

And that, friends, is the thing that drives me insane. With certain exceptions, the guys wearing our kits in the last few years are just so unlikeable. It makes me happier than ever that, essentially, we root for laundry as opposed to the people who wear it. Honestly speaking, I would be happier supporting an Arsenal of honest journeymen who worked their bollocks off and finished in 9th than I would of these flat-track bullies who roll over and play dead any time they encounter the slightest resistance.

I mean, I could handle one Denilson, or one Andrei Arshavin, or one Theo Walcott, or one Johan Djourou, or one sicknote like Abou Diaby, etc and so on. We have them all (remember, Denilson is only on loan and Sao Paulo won't be keeping him. He'll be back next season).

Speaking of personnel, the major team news was Gervinho returning from Africa Cup of Nations duty to slot back into the left wing, Francis Coquelin coming into right back and Lukasz Fabianski maintaining his place as Cup keeper (a move which drives me crazy seeing as how this was our only chance of silverware this season). Aaron Ramsey returned in place of Tomas Rosicky, and the rest picked themselves.

Six minutes in, the Arsenal had already threatened the opposition goal more times than in 45 minutes in that late-term abortion of a match against Milan. A free kick from just outside the penalty area was taken by Mikael Arteta. His effort curved around the wall and went just wide, but at least it forced Simon Mignolet into a full-extension dive.

Two minutes later though, disaster struck our backline again. Coquelin had torched his man for pace down the right, but came up short after getting a very slight push in the back. He had to come off, and in his place came Sebastien Squillaci. A minute later, Sunderland probably should have had a chance to take the lead when Alex Song blatantly handled on a corner kick attempt. Thankfully, Howard Webb kept his whistle in his pocket.

Later on in the first half, Gervinho had a decent chance after being played in by RVP, but Mignolet was able to get two strong hands to it to tip it over. That said, one wonders what could have been if he had taken the chance sooner, rather than bring himself out wider into a more acute angle. Straight up the other end, Sunderland could have scored on a corner, but the ball eluded everyone on its way through the area.

The half wore on, mainly without incident. That is, until yet another moment of defensive brilliance from Djourou led to the free kick that gave Sunderland the lead. He took a backpass from Thomas Vermaelen, and with Craig Gardner charging him down, shoveled the ball right into him. Gardner was about to get around him, and Djourou responded with a waistlock. Needless to say, he was booked for that. Sebastien Larsson's free kick was cleared by TV5, but it came out to Kieran Richardson. He had a go, and it found its way in off of a deflection by the ever-reliable Squillaci. It was probably going wide without Squillaci's intervention, but it should also be noted that Bacary Sagna had given him all the room in the world, too.

That took us to halftime, but not before Sunderland could have scored again off a corner, this time, James McClean's wide-open header finding side netting.

The second period began much as the first ended, the Black Cats again handed a free kick in a dangerous area in the early minutes. Uncharacteristically, Arsene made his final two changes in the 53rd minute - Squillaci coming off for Walcott (Song dropping to central defense), and Rosicky coming on for Ramsey.

Now, OK. I'm all for early action to try and change the game in a desperate time, but what on earth was the boss playing at with these substitutions? I keep harping on it, but Rosicky's best qualities these days are in his defensive duties. There is nothing he does that can contribute to the unlocking of a packed defense. As for the other change, as maligned as he's been all season, Arshavin has shown some signs of life in recent matches. In just a few minutes against the same opposition a few matches ago, the little Russian provided the assist for Thierry Henry's storybook goal.

Instead, Walcott gets rewarded for one of the most cowardly performances of any Arsenal player in recent memory - to go along with his shoddy recent form in general - to get the nod over Arshavin.

There's just no explanation that I can come to in my head that makes any kind of logical sense.

A few minutes later, Djourou was extremely lucky not to be sent off. Thankfully for both us and Stephane Sessegnon, the Swiss man's reckless two-footed lunge did not actually connect with the Sunderland player. That so easily could have been a shattered ankle, and it so easily could have left us with exactly one available center-half for the crucial North London Derby.

I honestly don't know if Djourou makes that tackle if he plays for any other team in the Premiership. Where is the accountability with this team?

It took a while, but Sunderland finally put us out of our misery in the 77th minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain got muscled off the ball and the Black Cats were away. Sessegnon muscled Arteta off the ball like he was brushing off a fly. Only Djourou was back, as more Sunderland players came up in support. Gardner was the late option, having torn past Song, I believe it was. His shot from the back post had Fabianski beaten anyway, so I think it's kind of harsh that an own-goal was awarded to Oxlade-Chamberlain as he slid in to try and stop it.

Hell, at least the kid cares and he tried. That's more than can be said for some of his compatriots.

The remaining twenty minutes were played out with no indication that Arsenal would ever get back into it. This is, once again, a side in absolute free-fall.

Anyway, there are no ratings this week and no MOTM (not that I'd have an easy time picking one out from this rabble anyway) as I didn't watch the whole thing - admittedly, I had the score ruined for me and used the Guardian's MBM to point out which bits of the match to fast-forward to on my DVR. I was indisposed this weekend, at the funeral of a friend I knew from when I was younger. I don't want to be too cliche and go on about how it puts everything into perspective and all that, kind of does. Normal service should be resumed next week.

PS - if you're confused as to the title of the match report, this should explain it.

Preview by Numbers: Sunderland v. Arsenal, FA Cup Fifth Round

Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Saturday, February 18
12:15 p.m. EST, 5:15 p.m. GMT

  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Howard Webb
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Mike Mullarkey
    • 4th Official: Lee Mason
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 54 Arsenal wins, 49 Sunderland wins, 38 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 3 Arsenal wins, 3 Sunderland wins, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • 3rd Round: 1-0 win over Leeds United
    • 4th Round: 3-2 win over Aston Villa
  • Sunderland's Path Here
    • 3rd Round: 2-0 win over Peterborough United
    • 4th Round: 2-1 win (a.e.t.) over Middlesbrough (replay, after 1-1 draw)
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-L-L-D-W-W
  • Sunderland's League Form: W-L-W-W-W-L
I won't wax poetic here. Wednesday was abysmal. Sort it out, Arsenal.

With a Friday post coming after a Wednesday night game, there isn't much to say. There's even less to say considering these two teams played each other last week. Also, Wednesday was pretty depressing, so it's hard to say much at all. So, apologies for a terse preview this week.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Koscielny (knee), Mertesacker (ankle), Frimpong (knee), Santos (ankle), Diaby (hamstring), Jenkinson (back), Wilshere (ankle)

It was a terrible night in Milan for Arsene Wenger's
Banana Army. Photo: Daily Mail.
Because this Arsenal squad can't have every position at full health at any given time, now it's the center backs' turn to enter the physio room. Kieran Gibbs returned to the starting squad on Wednesday for the first time since October, but with his return, it was center back Laurent Koscielny who departed through injury before the interval. Johan Djourou deputized by conceding a penalty. We're just a heartbeat away from Squillaci Time! Or, more likely, Ignasi Miquel. Koscielny announced through his Facebook page (in French, so hopefully the Internet translation isn't too wrong) that there is no ligament damage and that he'll be rested only "for a few days." Great, great news.

Gervinho returns from Africa Cup duty after missing a penalty in the shootout that saw his Ivory Coast lose the final to Zambia, so he's likely just as short of confidence as the rest of the squad is after Wednesday. Thierry Henry's loan spell is over; he has returned to the New York Red Bulls. But, you knew that already. The question is, does Gervinho slip right back into the starting line-up? My guess would be no and that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will get another start, with Gervinho coming on off the bench. Then again, I don't know what Gervinho's fitness level is, so how can I make this prediction?

Otherwise, there's no other new injuries and no new returns.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen, Djourou, Gibbs, Song, Ramsey, Arteta, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, van Persie.

Sunderland Squad News

Out: Bendtner (face), Vaughan (ankle), Brown (knee), Bramble (calf), Gordon (knee)
Doubts: Cattermole (hamstring), Kilgallon (ankle)

Lee Cattermole could return from a hamstring
injury. Photo: SDSU.
Sunderland have been ravaged by injuries through the past few weeks, though having this midweek off will mean Arsenal will face a much more rested side at the Stadium of Light than they did last week. In addition, some of their injured players are returning from their injuries.

Captain and car-smasher Lee Cattermole is in contention for a return, having been out since the end of January with a hamstring problem. He'll face a late fitness test. Fellow car-smasher Nicklas Bendtner has returned to light training after facial injuries, though he's ineligible to face his parent club. Matt Kilgallon is back in contention after returning to training this week from an ankle injury.

Those who remain out for the Black Cats include David Vaughan (ankle), Wes Brown (knee), Titus Bramble (calf), and Craig Gordon (knee ligaments).

Current Form

How much can you say about form when Sunderland's last match was against Arsenal?

Since last Saturday, Sunderland has not played, and Arsenal suffered their worst ever Champions League defeat. That's about it.

Section over.

Match Facts

Bob Wilson concedes Sunderland's opener in the 1973
semifinal. Sunderland would go on to win the cup.
Photo: Football Archive.

I won't touch much on Arsenal's overall history with Sunderland; I did that last week. So, let's stick with the history between these two sides in this competition. Arsenal and Sunderland have met in the FA Cup six previous times, dating back as far as 1893, when the Black Cats came away with a 6-0 victory. Of course, they weren't called the Black Cats then; they've only been the Black Cats since they moved to the Stadium of Light in 1997, though the symbol has been with the club long before that. Anyway, I'm getting badly off topic here.

(Woolwich) Arsenal returned the favor in 1906 with a 5-0 victory of their own. Sunderland won again in 1961, then in the 1973 semifinal at Hillsborough (Sunderland won the cup over Leeds in the final that year,) but they have not beaten Arsenal in the cup since. The Gunners came away with wins in 1991 and 1997 in a replay.

The Referee

Howard Webb called this a penalty. Sunderland were
furious. Photo: Peterlee Mail.
The referee is South Yorkshire-based Howard Webb. Seriously, you didn't see that coming? How did you not see that coming?

The good news is Arsenal isn't all of a sudden playing Sunderland at Old Trafford. Remember, if you ignore matches played against Manchester United at Old Trafford, then Arsenal are unbeaten in their last ten matches with Howard Webb as the referee. That's not bad at all.

Yes, he was the referee for the 8-2 debacle in August. The other two matches he's worked for the Gunners this year were Arsenal wins at the Emirates: 2-1 over Sunderland and 1-0 over Everton. I've gone back to read Sean's recaps of these games to see if there was anything of note about Webb's performances (I personally recall him being mostly solid in his decision making) and all I came across were a few harsh yellow cards in the Everton match. Most people tend to fear the worst with Howard Webb, though I feel like on these two occasions, most have thought he's been decent. There's a reason he's considered one of the best referees in England, and any pro-Manchester United bias probably isn't going to rear its ugly head in a competition United is no longer playing in this year.

As for his record with Sunderland this season, he worked their Tyne & Wear derby match with Newcastle back in August, sending off Phil Bardsley for a second yellow in the 89th as Newcastle won 1-0, so Sunderland supporters won't be too happy with that. He worked their league loss at the Emirates, so Sunderland supporters won't be too happy with that. He worked a 1-1 draw at Everton on Boxing Day, where the Toffees pulled level on a phantom penalty at the Stadium of Light, so Sunderland supporters won't be too happy with that. Do you notice a trend here?

On the balance, you would think Sunderland supporters should be more upset about this than Arsenal supporters, so stop worrying.

Around the Fifth Round

Here's Crawley Town at Old Trafford last year, where they
gave United a more difficult 5th round match than Arsenal
did in the 6th round. Photo: Zimbio.
The FA Cup (with Budweiser! Man, that's still stupid) fifth round will see eight ties go ahead this weekend. This is the final weekend where Premier League play is halted for the cup. For the sixth round on the weekend of March 17-18, Premier League matches are scheduled as normal, then postponed to a later date if either or both of the teams are still playing in the cup. Arsenal is slated to visit Goodison Park to face Everton that weekend, though such a match would be postponed if Arsenal, Everton, or both advance this week. For all we know, that match itself could be drawn in the sixth round, who knows?

Everton will play earlier than Arsenal tomorrow, so we'll know by kick-off whether there's still a chance the match is on or not. Should Everton win and Arsenal lose in this round, the Gunners would have that weekend off. Everton is home to Blackpool in this round, one of three 10:00 a.m. matches on Saturday. The other two are Norwich hosting Leicester and Millwall hosting Bolton. The early match on Saturday is a battle of Blues, as Chelsea host Birmingham City at the Bridge. Sunderland v. Arsenal is the late game.

Three more ties take place on Sunday, as Crawley Town (the lowest remaining team still alive in the cup for the second year running at this point) hosts Stoke, then Stevenage hosts Tottenham Hotspur, and in the late game, Liverpool hosts Brighton and Hove Albion.