Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa: Grinding it Out

This was not a match that you will rave about on your deathbed to your grandkids. It was not pretty, exciting or effective for long stretches - and frankly, any other opponent would have walked away with all three points. But, you can only play what is in front of you, and Arsenal did just enough to drag themselves over the line to what may prove to be a vital victory. 

Arsenal reversed their usual script against weaker sides, as they started strongly and nabbed a goal before many fans had found their seats. I didn't see who took the first shot, which was blocked by Nathan Baker. The rebound came out to Santi Cazorla, who brilliantly threaded the needle through two sets of legs and past the unsighted Brad Guzan.

Put the ball on net, and good things can happen.

The good guys dominated possession for a while after the goal, but settled into their now-familiar offensive stasis. Eventually, the visitors were able to haul themselves back into the contest and started to create chances of their own.

Frustratingly, both of Villa's most threatening first-half attacks came down our left wing with no one challenging the wide player. Would it have killed our coaching staff to pop the DVD of the Bayern match in sometime in the interim and break down what went wrong?

The first came when the excellent Andreas Weimann bombed down the left wing, with Nacho Monreal much too far off of him. His cross was dead on the mark, but Gabriel Agbonlahor failed to latch on to it. Several minutes later, Wojceich Szczesny was called into action on a similar situation. It was Weimann again who had the run of our left side, and his cross came in to Agbonlahor. The striker's effort was a decent hit, but at a comfortable height for the keeper to save.

Amazingly, Arsenal couldn't muster a response and were at times overrun by one of the poorest sides in the division. The Villains were up to 60% possession at one stage, a spell of pressure that saw Szczesny again called into action to parry a drive by Charles N'Zogbia.

The home side's ball-retention issues were mainly due to an indifferent effort from our midfield, Abou Diaby particularly culpable. Before he hobbled off with an injury for the ten-millionth time, he exhibited several poor touches, misplaced passes and giveaways in the middle of the park.

There were defensive issues as well, Thomas Vermaelen again at the heart of it. A feint from N'Zogbia put the captain on his backside, but thankfully the ball bobbled away from the Villa man before he could fire a shot on goal.

It wasn't all Villa though, as our guys managed a few half-chances. The best of them came from a neat passing move between Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. The Spaniard then sprung Olivier Giroud with a nice one-two, but the angle was tough for the Frenchman. Guzan cut it down further by coming off his line decisively, and he smothered the shot well.

That concluded one of the duller halves of football I've seen. Don't get me wrong, it's not in the same class as South Korea 0-0 Bolivia from the 1994 World Cup or anything - that's always the gold standard in terrible football for me - but it was boring. The second half had a livelier start though, as Giroud and Ciaran Clark both missed gilt-edged chances within the first few minutes.

Inevitably, that spark of life died out and the match resumed its former tedium. Arsenal probed around the edges of the Villa penalty area, but could not find a way through. The match was screaming for a few substitutions or a change in approach, but of course none were forthcoming. As is all too typical this season, our willingness to drift through games was punished by a thoroughly preventable goal.

For some reason, the center-halves continued to press forward despite our slender lead. An attack was broken up, and one of their defenders launched a simple Route One ball forward. Carl Jenkinson failed to clear it, and somehow Weimann was allowed to run unchallenged perhaps 10 yards with the ball. Jenkinson retreated to the wing to prevent a pass to the onrushing wide man, but Nacho Monreal was there and should have pressed. Instead, he retreated and allowed the Austrian all the time he wanted to pick out his shot. Weimann belted one on net. Szczesny saw it the whole way and it was from a fair distance out. However, it looked like he didn't expect the shot, and it slithered through his hands and in.

I hate to say it - I'm as big a fan of the Pole in Goal as anyone - but he is in horrendous form and our lack of an experienced backup pushing him for his place is beginning to cost us.  What Lord Ferg over at the Evil Empire has done with De Gea and Lindegaard is instructive.

That finally sparked the boss into action, Lukas Podolski coming on for Jenkinson. Villa had opted for a full-scale bunker at this point, and Jenks had played a bit of a mare anyway.

It was all Arsenal at this point, but I'd be lying if I said I thought a goal was coming. Giroud, another guy woefully out of form and only playing because of our criminally-negligent lack of options, could only direct an open header right at Guzan.  Things looked dire, and the mood didn't improve when Podolski couldn't manage to get to a wonderful low cross across the face of goal from Cazorla. 

But, our Malaga Connection came through at the last to rescue the points. Wilshere started the move, playing a wonderful chipped pass over the Villa backline. Monreal timed his run to perfection, and he expertly sent a low cross into the penalty area. Cazorla received it in a shocking amount of space, and he made no mistake in lashing a shot into the far corner.

How badly did we need that one?

Theo Walcott came off for Laurent Koscielny to see out the last few minutes, which was done with a minimum of fuss. So, a big win for the men in red, although it wasn't quite as decisive as I'd have liked. Still, the points were the important thing coming off of our latest Worst Week Ever, and now we are just a point behind our nearest and dearest. If they drop points away to West Ham on Monday, we'll come out of this round of fixtures in good shape heading into the North London Derby next week.

That said, Arsenal is going to have to significantly step up their game if they're going to get a result out of that game. I don't think it's hyperbole to say our season hangs in the NLD balance.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 5, Monreal 7, Vermaelen 6, Mertesacker 7, Jenkinson 5 (Podolski 6), Arteta 7, Diaby 5 (Ramsey 7), Cazorla 8, Wilshere 7, Walcott 6 (Koscielny N/A), Giroud 5

Man of the Match: No mystery here. Santi Cazorla.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Aston Villa

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, February 23
10:00 a.m. EST, 15:00 GMT

  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Martin Atkinson
    • Assistants: John Flynn and Charles Breakspear
    • 4th Official: Paul Tierney
  • Reverse Fixture: Aston Villa 0 - 0 Arsenal
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 3 - 0 Aston Villa
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 75 Arsenal wins, 65 Aston Villa wins, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-L-W-D-W-W
  • Aston Villa's League Form: D-L-D-L-D-W
  • Weather: Cloudy, 3 C / 38 F
So, wait. How many more wins do Arsenal need? A million?
There are 12 games remaining in the league and, let's face it, probably one left in Europe. 13 chances to put the grimness of the last week behind us, to scratch and claw up to that sweet, sweet Top Four Trophy.

Mathematically speaking, Arsenal's odds of finishing fourth or higher are currently 48.5%. To be perfectly realistic, Arsenal probably need to win eight or nine of the remaining 12 games, seven if they're lucky and the others drop points. Can you look at the remaining schedule and point to eight winnable games?

There are certainly three that are the diciest: Spurs away, Everton at home, and United at home. That leaves nine: Villa at home, Swansea away, Reading at home, West Brom away, Norwich at home, Fulham away, QPR away, Wigan at home, and Newcastle away.

Next week's North London derby is the big one, a Top Four six-pointer. Arsenal will play Everton at the Emirates sometime thereafter (depending on Everton's advancement in the cup.) Winning those two will make the job easier against the rest of their opponents.

But for now, failing to pick up all three points at home against relegation threatened Aston Villa would be like shooting yourself in the foot right before running a marathon.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Sagna (knee), Gibbs (thigh)

Ah, yes. The intimidating image of Arsenal players walking
slowly towards you. Wait, they've just conceded a goal.
That isn't intimidating at all!
Carl Jenkinson returns from the one match ban he received for being sent off at Sunderland, and that's good news, because the bad news is that Bacary Sagna is out. The blond-braided Frenchman tweaked his knee against Bayern and will sit out this contest, meaning Jenkinson will get a chance to redeem himself tomorrow. Meanwhile, Nacho Monreal returns to the side, having been cup tied from participating in the Champions League. That means Arsene Wenger will choose between Thomas Vermaelen, Laurent Koscielny, and Per Mertesacker for the center back pairing. It'll be a challenge for the back four not to get too complacent in possession, as Villa have the players to counterattack.

The squad news in midfield and up front is fairly quiet; it seems like everyone ahead of the banged up back four is available for selection, fingers crossed. Wenger said, when announcing Sagna's injury, "I don't think there are any other knocks really."

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Monreal, Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Walcott, Giroud.

Aston Villa Squad News

Out: Herd (foot), Albrighton (foot), Gardner (knee), Dunne (groin), Petrov (illness)
Doubts: N'Zogbia (knee), Agbonlahor (illness)

Oh, are Villa gonna be wearing these horrible colors?
Uggggggghhhhhhh... Actually, I have shoes
that are this color... I won't wear them on Saturday.
From what I've read online, Villa fans seriously think they can steal at least a point from this one, and I wouldn't blame them. They've slightly turned a corner, having finally won again against West Ham after previously blowing a 3-1 lead against Everton the week before.

Villa are still without Chris Herd and Marc Albrighton, both out with foot injuries. Gary Gardner is out of the season with a knee injury. Richard Dunne has not played a game this season with a groin injury; he's already had surgery three times. Stiliyan Petrov remains sidelined with acute leukemia.

There are doubts over Charles N'Zogbia (knee) and Gabriel Agbonlahor (illness), compounded by the fact that Aston Villa have not played a match in two weeks. Agbonlahor missed the West Ham match (and as such, has not played since February 2.) N'Zogbia was subbed off after 85 minutes against West Ham, after scoring to put Villa ahead 2-0.

Current Form

Andreas Weimann puts his hands to his face after a miss
against West Ham that could only be called "Gervinho-esque."
Over the course of four days, from Saturday to Tuesday, Arsenal lost twice at the Emirates. While Bayern Munich are far and away among the best teams in Europe at the moment (and now, Champions League favorites after Barcelona's first leg loss at the San Siro,) Blackburn Rovers are certainly not of that same quality. Gooners are all left standing about wondering what the hell is going on, while looking for pantomime villains to blame. Quite honestly, I still blame Denilson.

The thing about Arsenal's two home losses is that it's the first time it has happened (consecutive home losses across all competitions, that is) since November of 2010, when Arsenal lost to Newcastle and *vomit* Tottenham Hotspur. You may find yourself wondering, then, when was the last time Arsenal lost three straight home games? It was October-November of 2002, when Arsenal lost 2-1 to Auxerre in the Champions League, then 2-1 to Blackburn Rovers in the league, then 3-2 to Sunderland in the League Cup.

Aston Villa are teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, sitting just one point above the drop line. Aston Villa (17th) have 24 points, Reading (18th) have 23, Wigan (19th) have 21, and QPR (20th) have just 17. On February 10, Villa beat West Ham 2-1. It was the Villans' first victory in the league since December 15. A week after that, Villa lost 8-0 at Chelsea, then 4-0 to Spurs, then 3-0 to Wigan, tumbling them from 14th to 17th place. Before the West Ham win, Villa had gone eight without a victory, including five losses. In the meantime, they were bounced from the FA Cup by a Championship side and from the League Cup by Bradford City. Actually, that all sounds quite familiar.

Match Facts

What is going on here? Why is Aaron Ramsey trying to
backheel it, in mid-air, past a goalkeeper who is facing the
wrong way? I don't actually remember anything close to this
exciting happening in that game.
Arsenal won all three meetings with Aston Villa last season, but earlier this year, played a miserable 0-0 draw in the pouring rain in Birmingham at the end of November. It was a dire affair, in which Arsenal never really looked capable of moving the ball around with gusto because of the conditions. It also came just shortly before Villa went through a stretch where they conceded tens of millions of goals to everybody, so Arsenal had to even further be cursing their luck to have played Villa at the wrong time in the wrong conditions.

Villa came to the Emirates twice last year, once in the league and once in the FA Cup. That cup tie came first, at the end of January, when Arsenal came back from 2-0 down at halftime to win 3-2. Two of Arsenal's goals came from the penalty spot and all three came within seven minutes of each other. Arsenal had a much easier time in the league encounter at the end of March, winning comfortably 3-0 behind goals by Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, and Mikel Arteta.

Of Aston Villa's last four goals scored at the Emirates, three of them were scored by Darren Bent.

The Referee

He'd better not be doing that Gareth Bale heart thing...
The referee is West Yorkshire-based Martin Atkinson. This is the first time Arsenal will see Atkinson this year without Chelsea being involved. Chelsea won both games 2-1. Arsenal won two of three with Atkinson last season. I now only have memories of Atkinson being dreadful in the build-up to both Chelsea goals at Stamford Bridge in January, which is, incidentally, the last time Arsenal lost a league game.

Bizarrely, Villa have not seen Atkinson at all this season. Last year, Atkinson worked the final match of Villa's season (a 2-0 loss at Norwich.) Earlier in the year, he worked their 0-0 draw with Wolves at Villa Park.

Atkinson has shown 108 yellow cards this season, more than any other Select Group official. He has only shown one red card, though, and that came in the Tyne-Wear derby, to Cheick Tiote.

Around the League

There's no late game on Saturday this week. Liverpool does not play (their rearranged fixture with Swansea, who is in the Capital One Cup Final on Sunday, was played last week.)
  • Saturday (early): Fulham v. Stoke City; Craven Cottage, London
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Everton; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Saturday: Queens Park Rangers v. Manchester United; Loftus Road, London
  • Saturday: Reading v. Wigan Athletic; Madejski Stadium, Reading
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Sunderland; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Sunday (early): Manchester City v. Chelsea; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Sunday (early): Newcastle United v. Southampton; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Sunday (late), Capital One Cup Final: Bradford City v. Swansea City; Wembley Stadium, London
  • Monday (night): West Ham United v. Tottenham Hotspur; Boleyn Ground, London

Arsenal 1-3 Bayern Munich: Anatomy of a Shambolic Defense

The inquest into last weekend's capitulation in the FA Cup largely missed the point. Brickbats galore were directed at the players, with accusations of arrogance and lack of effort. I disagree.

At a more macro level, the book on this team is that they just don't have the horses to compete against better teams. Again, I disagree. My favorite hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, have largely the same roster that they did last season. They have 9 wins in 14 games so far...last season, it took 24 attempts to reach that milestone. Guess what they did?

If you guessed "change the coach and general manager", you win a cookie! Same team. Same players. New coach, new discipline, new determination, new results.

Meanwhile, I'm not going to go much into the actual play-by-play account of this match. You all know the story - a talented-but-flawed team got played off the park by a much better one. The underdog got stuffed on their own patch, but it emphatically was not for lack of effort. Arsenal pressed and harried as much as possible, Jack Wilshere in particular busting a gut at every turn to try and keep his side in the game.

Once again, we got tactically outclassed. Once again, we got brutally out-coached. Once again, ridiculous defensive errors made a difficult mission impossible. This time around, I will mainly focus on the goals against and point out the multitude of breakdowns that happened on each.

The common denominator in all of the goals we conceded is that they resulted from attacks targeting the left side of our defense. Each time, a winger or fullback had as much time and space as they wanted to send in a cross, and the resulting chaos saw the ball go into the back of our net.

Even worse, the team selection essentially served to funnel Bayern's attacks directly to the gaping chest wound of our left side. Aaron Ramsey was once again deployed on the right wing, likely for defensive purposes. But, the right was already guarded by the in-form Bacary Sagna, who did not need nearly as much assistance as Thomas Vermaelen did out of position on the left. In the center, the more dependable of our defenders, Per Mertesacker, is the right-sided man. Laurent Koscielny, who has had his troubles this season, was the one protecting Vermaelen. Meanwhile, the notoriously-lax Lukas Podolski was our left winger, meaning that Phillip Lahm and Thomas Muller had a written invitation to bomb down the right wing.

I want to reiterate this - our manager deployed a formation that begged our opponents to attack our weakest point. I mean, I realize I'm part of the democracy of uninformed opinions...I haven't exactly done my pro badges at Clairefontaine. But, doesn't that strike anyone else as beyond insane?

It didn't take long for Munich to take advantage, either. Arsenal had one chance early where Santi Cazorla was alone on the side of the penalty area. He had a decent angle, but passed into nowhere instead of testing Manuel Neuer. Seconds later, Wojceich Szczesny was picking the ball out of his net.

Mikael Arteta was robbed of the ball in midfield, and the visitors were away. Franck Ribery played it out wide to Muller. Vermaelen should have been on him, but he was inside covering Koscielny's man. Kos was in the middle, marking no one. Podolski was miles behind the play, and too far inside to boot. Somehow, Arteta was the closest man to Muller, but he was still a good six feet away. Muller couldn't fail to pick out his man, sending a perfect cross to Toni Kroos in the middle. Ideally, Arteta should have been marking him as the defensive midfielder. Meanwhile, Koscielny lunged recklessly, and missed badly...taking him out of the play. Mertesacker, correctly minding Mario Mandzukic, wasn't able to close down Kroos in time. Szczesny was left with no chance as the youngster calmly lined up his shot and finished emphatically.

Arsenal tried in vain to fight back, one mazy run by Theo Walcott against five defenders a notable highlight. But, Bayern were always in control and only a desperate saving tackle by Vermaelen spared Mertesacker's blushes after he managed to pass it directly to Mandzukic while under no pressure whatsoever. The second lapse, and therefore the second goal, was always coming.

Actually, the second lapse resulted in the corner, at which the third lapse resulted in the goal.

Again, Bayern had the run of their right wing, and again, Vermaelen was in the center marking Koscielny's man. Kos tried to cover for the captain, but was too late. The cross came in, and this time Podolski was the one to lunge and miss. Vermaelen was badly beaten by his man, but again made a desperate sliding tackle to play it out for the corner.

The set piece came in, and Daniel van Buyten sailed past Mertesacker. The BFG had to check the late run of Javi Martinez though, meaning the Belgian became Ramsey's responsibility. Ramsey did his best pylon impersonation, gifting their man a free header. Szczesny perhaps could have done better to deflect the rebound out of danger, but it was well hit from not that far out. The rest of the defense all shut off though, allowing Muller to toe-poke it in while sitting on his bum one yard off the goal line.

I pause here to remind everyone how precious away goals are in Champions League play. Given how tight most knockout ties are, the difference between safe passage to the next round and failure is often how well you play as the visitors. Ponder again how cheaply we allowed our opponents to take a 2-0 lead after just 20 minutes, both away goals at that. 

Somehow, our guys made it to the interval without further damage. Partially, it was down to the Germans slowing play down and taking fewer chances. They were composed and disciplined in defense, and despite their lessened ambition should have been up 3-0 before halftime. Yet another free cross from Lahm was headed risibly wide from Mandzukic, the goal at his mercy.

That is, by my count, four horrendous lapses from the same side of our defense, resulting in two goals against in the first half. To combat this, the manager did...nothing.

To the eternal credit of the players, they kept fighting. Munich largely repelled them with ease, but a moment of madness from their otherwise world-class goalkeeper gave us a way back into the game. A corner was beautifully curled in by Wilshere. Neuer came out to the middle of the area, and then inexplicably stopped. His center-halves stopped as well, expecting him to claim it. The ball bounced perhaps a foot in front of the big keeper, and past him to the left. As this was ongoing, Podolski ghosted past his marker, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and nodded the loose ball into the vacated net.

Cue pandemonium at Ashburton Grove, the home supporters doing what they could to will Arsenal back into the game. For all the talk about the need for the fans to get behind the team, they were blameless on the day.

Bayern looked a bit frazzled for a few minutes after the goal, but Arsenal couldn't maintain the adrenaline rush and the match settled back into its own patterns. I note for the record here that once again, substitutions were not made until the 71st minute. Tomas Rosicky and Olivier Giroud came on for Ramsey and Podolski. Why Poldi was one of the ones coming off, I have no idea. What purpose was Arteta serving at this point? The Germans were largely content to sit back and soak up pressure at this why did we take off one of our more dangerous players?

Rosicky, seconds after coming on, sent a gorgeous raking long ball to Walcott on the wing (where he belongs, by the way). Theo played it into Giroud, who could only volley it against the body of Neuer when two feet either direction would have resulted in a goal. I am grateful for our big Frenchman, he's been important for us this season, but our lack of options kills us when he is out of form like he is now.

 That good feeling was not to last though, yet another ridiculous goal putting paid to any hope we had in the tie. Ooooh, and guess what side of the field it happened on?

You guessed it. A bog-standard long ball was won in the center by Mandzukic. Vermaelen correctly marked Arjen Robben as he made his run, but no one was on the overlap by Lahm. You know, this isn't exactly new - we've been positionally suspect on the wings all season long. Countless goals have ensued, and nothing has changed. Anyway, no one is on the fullback while Koscielny, Mertesacker and Sagna all marked the same two guys in the center. Whoever was on the wing at that point was nowhere to be found. Was it supposed to be Rosicky? Cazola? I have 5-to-1 odds that the players had no idea themselves. Anyway, the cross came in, Mandzukic and Sagna both went for it, and the deflection looped up and into the net.

I mean, what can you say?

In fact, it could have been 4-1 late on. A weird deflection was saved well by Szczesny, but the substitute Mario Gomez was left all alone in the penalty area to tuck in the rebound. He fluffed his lines and somehow guided his shot wide, preventing what would have been a truly appalling scoreline.

I'm beyond anger, though. I had predicted 0-3 before the match, and only a brain-freeze by Neuer prevented that from coming exactly true. The reason I went painstakingly through each goal is that I want to make my case that the players themselves are not to blame here. There is an obvious lack of coaching and leadership, and all the passion and desire in the world won't change that. Football has become a sport of systems and tactics, and we are left with a manager who was never any good at that aspect of things. The sport has passed him by, and we are the ones suffering for it, while paying the highest prices in Europe for the privilege.

I'm sorry to be such a downer about it, but it's the truth. I'm thankful for everything he has accomplished, but at this point he is the one thing holding this club back from where we ought to be. I'll finish by saying this - for me, the most likely result in the return leg in Munich is a 0-0 draw. You know why? Because I imagine they'll be saving their energies for more significant challenges. That sucks, and that hurts. But, really, am I wrong?

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 6, Vermaelen 5, Koscielny 6, Mertesacker 6, Sagna 7, Arteta 6, Wilshere 7, Podolski 7 (Rosicky 7), Cazorla 6, Ramsey 5 (Giroud 6), Walcott 6

Man of the Match:   Sagna was pretty good, and it was a huge tell that Bayern wanted no part of attacking down that wing. However, The Man Who Should Be Captain, Jack Wilshere, gets the nod for running his balls off and exhibiting exactly the sort of qualities that many say the players don't have. He deserves so much better. 

NYC Arsenal Supporters Presents: I Am Arsenal, Episode 03: Nick Hetherington

I Am Arsenal is a series we will continue to feature here on The Modern Gooner to show passionate Arsenal supporters in New York City.

The NYC Arsenal Supporters are easily the largest group of Arsenal Supporters in America, and we hope that by highlighting our members, people become inspired by our stories, and also see that we're not just a bunch of yanks. We meet every week, for every match at The Blind Pig and O'Hanlons Bar here in NYC, as early as 7:45 Kickoffs. We're a mix of Americans and Ex-Pats, and every other culture that makes up our very diverse city. We're Arsenal til We Die!

Episode 03 features Nick Hetherington, Ex-Pat, Filmmaker and member of the NYC Arsenal Supporters.

Please follow the NYC Arsenal Supporters on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Bayern Munich, Champions League Round of 16, First Leg

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, February 19
2:45 p.m. EST, 19:45 GMT
  • Match Officials from Norway
    • Referee: Svein Oddvar Moen
    • Assistants: Kim Thomas Haglund and Frank Andas
    • 4th Official: Sven Erik Midthjell
    • Additional Assistants: Ken Henry Johnsen and Dag Vidar Hafsas
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 1 Arsenal win, 2 Bayern wins, 1 draw
  • Arsenal in the Group Stage: Group B Runner-Up
  • Bayern in the Group Stage: Group F Winner
  • Arsenal's Premier League Form: L-L-W-D-W-W
  • Bayern's Bundesliga Form: D-W-W-W-W-W
  • Weather: Clear, 2 C / 36 F
What is there that I could possibly say that hasn't already been said all over the Internet since Saturday's debacle? Probably nothing, so there's no point in rehashing it all.

A result tonight would go a very long way in repairing the feelings we all have about this team at this moment, but it's a long shot. Stranger things have happened. Perhaps Bayern will treat Arsenal like Arsenal treated Blackburn?

One can hope, right? Right?

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Monreal (cup tied), Gibbs (thigh)
Doubts: Koscielny (calf)
Accumulation Trouble: Koscielny and Cazorla each face a one match ban with their next yellow card.

It's a good thing that kid sitting on the sideline is wearing
a captain's armband. Is he captain of the ballboys?
There are two main stories within the squad news right now. The makeshift defense will be a major discussion, especially if Arsenal loses by a lopsided scoreline. But, the real onus is on the midfield trio of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, and Santi Cazorla to dictate the play. The slapped together defense will be less of a story (and less of a factor) if Arsenal's midfield gets the better of Bayern's (on paper, it's hard to say that will happen, but let's be optimistic for some reason.) Jack Wilshere's going to have to put in a performance like he did against Barcelona two years ago. And even that alone might not be enough.

That said, the defense does look a bit of a mess, doesn't it? We all knew that Kieran Gibbs would be out for this match and that Nacho Monreal was cup tied. We all knew that this meant Thomas Vermaelen would slide over to play left back, likely leaving Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker in the middle, and Bacary Sagna on the right. But, with Koscielny still a doubt after missing training yesterday, there's a huge question mark at center back. Does Ignasi Miquel play? Does Sagna slide over like he did against Sunderland? If he does, will Carl Jenkinson get another shot at right back, despite his failings at the Stadium of Light? Will we see "Aaron Ramsey: Surprise Right Back" again? Ultimately, I'm not the man with the answer to those questions (which will, of course, be moot if Koscielny passes fit.)

In 2006, both Gael Clichy and Ashley Cole were hurt at one point and Arsenal still went to the final. Have you looked at the back four that played against Real Madrid in the Round of 16 that year? It was Emmanuel Eboue, Kolo Toure, Philippe Senderos, and Mathieu Flamini.

Arsenal have done it with a makeshift back four before.

Bayern Squad News

Suspended: Boateng (first of two)
Accumulation Trouble: Dante, Schweinsteiger, and Martinez each face a one match ban with their next yellow card.

It looks like Arsenal attempted to force Bayern to train in
the dark.
Bayern Munich have no major injury concerns to contend with, though center back Jerome Boateng will miss both legs of the tie after being sent off on Matchday 6.

Much of the focus will be on Bayern's midfield trio (Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Toni Kroos) and how they play against Arteta, Wilshere, and Cazorla. Both Martinez and Schweinsteiger are in yellow card trouble; both could be suspended for the second leg if they are booked tonight. Center bank Dante is also in yellow card trouble; that's even more dangerous for Bayern, considering Boateng is already suspended.

Bayern have the pacey Austria international David Alaba at left back and he certainly has the speed and acceleration to deal with Theo Walcott. Thomas Muller or Arjen Robben will attack down the right flank against Arsenal's makeshift left side, while Lukas Podolski will deal with Germany's captain, Philipp Lahm, down Arsenal's left flank.

Oh, and there's the matter of world class Manuel Neuer in goal, too.

Current Form

Dortmund has had Bayern's number in the past two
seasons. The sides played a 1-1 draw in December.
How much is there to really say about Arsenal's form? The progress made through those two hard fought victories over Stoke and Sunderland from the previous two weeks was almost entirely undone by losing 1-0 at home to a Championship side. The Gunners, in terms of form, are still wobbly, at best.

And so, let's talk about the season Bayern Munich is having. It's staggering. They have lost twice, across all competitions. Last season was particularly difficult to swallow, losing the Champions League final (at home) after coming so close to winning it, while also conceding a domestic Double to Borussia Dortmund. Bayern Munich came in second place in all three competitions last year.

Through 22 matches in the Bundesliga this year, Bayern Munich is 15 points clear (comparatively, Manchester United and Barcelona are both 12 points clear in their respectively leagues; it's insane how noncompetitive the top three leagues in Europe are this season.) They have not dropped points since before Germany's winter break, last failing to win against Borussia Monchengladbach on December 14. Their only league loss (which was at home) came on October 28, to Bayer Leverkusen. They also lost in the Champions League, surprisingly, at BATE Borisov in Belarus, on October 2.

Next Wednesday, Bayern Munich will host Borussia Dortmund in a DFB-Pokal (the German Cup) quarterfinal, as they will look for revenge from last year's 5-2 loss in the final.

Match Facts

Claudio Pizarro celebrates one of his two goals in the
first leg of the 2005 Round of 16.
Arsenal have met Bayern Munich twice before in the Champions League: in the 2000/01 second group stage and in the 2005 Round of 16. The Bavarians got the better of the Gunners on both occasions overall, going on to win the competition in 2001.

In 2000/01, both Arsenal and Bayern advanced from the second group stage, as Bayern took four of a possible six points from Arsenal. Arsenal lost in Germany on Matchday 6 and advanced only because Lyon was unable to win in Moscow against Spartak. In the first meeting, on Matchday 2 in London, Arsenal led 2-0 through Thierry Henry and Kanu, but conceded twice in the second half to draw 2-2. On Matchday 6, Arsenal lost 1-0 in Germany, via a 10th minute goal by Elber.

In the 2005 Round of 16, Arsenal lost the first leg 3-1 in Germany. Bayern jumped out to a 3-0 lead, with a brace from Claudio Pizarro and a goal from Hasan Salihamidzic. Arsenal grabbed a huge away goal in the 88th minute, though, from Kolo Toure. Arsenal, therefore, needed to win 2-0 at home in the second leg to advance on away goals. Thierry Henry finally got the first in the 66th minute, but Arsenal never found the second. Arsenal won the match 1-0, but lost the tie 3-2 on aggregate.

The Referee

The match officials are from Norway; the referee is Svein Oddvar Moen. Arsenal have seen Oddvar Moen twice over the past three seasons; both encounters were at the Emirates and both were Arsenal victories. On Matchday 2 earlier this year, he took charge of Arsenal's 3-1 win over Olympiacos. In 2010, he was in the middle of Arsenal's 5-1 win over Shakhtar Donetsk.

Bayern Munich have only seen Moen once, though that match was the deepest into the tournament Moen has worked. It was in last year's quarterfinal, as Bayern defeated Marseille 2-0 at Allianz Arena.

Around the Round of 16

Note that the home side is yet to win in any of the knockout phase matches already played.
  • Last Tuesday: Celtic 0 - 3 Juventus
  • Last Tuesday: Valencia 1 - 2 Paris Saint-Germain
  • Last Wednesday: Shakhtar Donetsk 2 - 2 Borussia Dortmund
  • Last Wednesday: Real Madrid 1 - 1 Manchester United
  • Today: Porto v. Malaga; Estadio do Dragao, Porto
  • Tomorrow: Galatasaray v. Schalke 04; Turk Telekom Arena, Istanbul
  • Tomorrow: AC Milan v. Barcelona; San Siro, Milan

Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn Rovers: Heartbreak

I will be in the minority here, but I do not think Arsenal played poorly today. This was a textbook case of the result being worse than the performance. What hurts is that this is the second time this season that a lower-league side has dumped us out of a winnable competition. Unlike the Bradford City abomination, this was a case where we ran into an in-form keeper and the breaks didn't go our way.

That said, questions have to be asked of the manager for what feels like the millionth time in the last seven seasons. Rotation wasn't the issue - that was always necessary and this starting XI should have handled Blackburn. What gets me was the inclusion of Gervinho in the starting lineup. I'm continually amazed at how one goal in the African Cup of Nations - aided and abetted by a horrendous goalkeeping effort - was enough to balance out the entirety of this season in the eyes of the world. This was the one trophy we were in with a shout of winning, and it should not have been trusted in the hands of a guy whose confidence abandoned him a eons ago.

Arsenal took the threat seriously after an early miss by Marcus Olsson, and dominated the rest of the half to a ludicrous extent. Francis Coquelin, deputizing at right back for the rested Bacary Sagna and the suspended Carl Jenkinson, was particularly lively. He also made several brilliant tackles as the half wore on.

Blackburn defended with determination and discipline though, as they effectively packed their area with a blue-clad Praetorian Guard. Gervinho made some decent runs, but often found cul-de-sacs with no one in support. The midfield fired cross after cross into the box, but Olivier Giroud did not have his best game in the center-forward role.

The visitors seemed to deliberately play the ball out for a corner kick whenever danger struck, knowing that Arsenal would be unable to capitalize. The Gunners duly lived up to the stereotype, with 12 or 13 set pieces going by the wayside in the first half alone. Jake Kean was never threatened in the Blackburn net.

Where oh where have you gone, Paul Robinson?

Finally, our eighth corner saw a brilliant ball played into the area by Tomas Rosicky. Abou Diaby rose highest and planted a solid header on net. Kean somehow parried it away with an amazing reflex save, a reaction which set the tone for the afternoon.

A few minutes later, Kean once again rescued his side with a superhuman display of alertness and quick reflexes. Yet another Arsenal corner came out to Thomas Vermaelen, whose looping header looked like it was going to sneak in despite the presence of several Blackburn defenders on the line.  Sadly, Kean arrived at the last moment to tip it to safety over the crossbar.

That was the frustrating bit - one had the feeling that had any of these gone in, Blackburn would have had to push men forward to try to equalize. Had that happened, they would surely have been eviscerated by our guys on the counter.

The worst was yet to come though, and no prizes for guessing which of our attackers was responsible for it.

Just before halftime, a quick Arsenal attack saw Rosicky do what he does best - a gorgeous defense-splitting pass that shredded the opposition. Gervinho was unfortunately the beneficiary, and that goes back to what I said in the open. No one chance is ever a certainty to go in, but I believe that any of our attackers other than him would probably have put it away. Once again, we go up 1-0 there, we go on to win the game comfortably.

Needless to say, Gervinho not only missed, but despite the keeper going the wrong way he couldn't so much as get it on frame. But, I don't blame the man himself. We all know what he is at this point. I blame the manager who selected him to start one of the most important matches of our season despite the mountain range of evidence indicating that his best position is "substitute".

Arsenal were not as lively in the second half, an audacious overhead kick from the otherwise-quiet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain aside. The visitors dropped ever deeper, and our guys couldn't thread the needle in their crowded penalty area. It was bleedingly obvious by the hour mark that substitutions were needed, but to the surprise of no one the manager stuck it out with the eleven on the field.

That said, at the time I was still confident that we'd win, and even said so to Brett in the pub. It worked out well against Stoke, as you may recall. And, there was the one moment where it looked like that would come to fruition. Rosicky, who had a storming game, was the catalyst once again. Out of nothing, he turned and fired a rocket towards the far post. The second that left his foot, I leaped off my barstool. It was dipping just right, over the futile dive of Kean.

That was the moment. Yet again, if that goes in, we go on to win the game. Heart-rendingly, it found the crossbar instead of the top corner of the net. Bloody hell.

Belatedly, the manager made all three substitutions, and on the face of it was heartening to see. Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott came on for Rosicky, Gervinho and the Ox. That gave us no shortage of attacking options, and it should have been enough to break down the obstinate Rovers defense.

Instead, seconds later, a toxic combination of shite luck and worse defending gave Blackburn the goal that put them through to the next round.  A hopeful punt upfield was corralled by Olsson and directed on net. Wojceich Szczesny, who barely had a thing to do all game, got two hands to it. This may be harsh, but I thought his rebound control let him down. He needed to direct it off to the side, but the rebound instead came back out to the center of the area. The Arsenal defense were nowhere, and Colin Kazim-Richards was first to the loose ball. At first, it looked like his weak hit had spared our blushes, as it looked to be looping wide. Instead, it hit the bar and banked into the net.

That's what it came down to, really. Ours hit the bar and went out to safety, theirs hit the post and went in.

That sucker punch deflated Ashburton Grove, and it took a long while for the Gunners to get back to anything resembling attacking fluency. Despite the firepower on the field, they couldn't find the final ball to seriously test Kean. Diaby had one shot pushed out by the keeper, but it was always comfortable for him.

There was one last hope for redemption, though. Wilshere tried to will us forward, and his cross from the left was immaculate. Walcott scythed through the middle to latch onto it, and his free header was hit well. Had he directed it to either side of Kean, it likely would have been the equalizer. Even as it stood, a rebound should have been there for Walcott to sweep in. Somehow, Kean was able to catch and hold the shot, and that was that.

Eight years it will be without a trophy now. To put that into perspective, our trophy drought is now in third grade. I don't have it in me to go much further down that rabbit hole - I mean, it was an effort to even write this report. Sadly, I already played the guest-writer card last week.

At the end of the day, it is another lost season in a growing litany of them. If that isn't bad enough, Bayern Munich awaits on Tuesday week. Let's keep it to single digits at least, OK lads?

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 6, Monreal 6, Vermaelen 7, Koscielny 7, Coquelin 7, Arteta 6, Diaby 7, Gervinho 6 (Cazorla 7), Rosicky 7 (Wilshere 7), Oxlade-Chamberlain 6 (Walcott 7), Giroud 5.

Man of the Match: There isn't much to choose from. I was leaning towards Coquelin for a while, but it's hard to give it to anyone other than Tomas Rosicky. He damn near won us the game with his effort against the crossbar, and anyone other than Gervinho would have scored on his brilliant through-ball.

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

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, February 16
10:00 a.m. EST, 15:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Peter Kirkup and Sian Massey
    • 4th Official: Kevin Friend
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 58 Arsenal wins, 30 Blackburn wins, 31 draws
  • All-Time in the FA Cup: 4 Arsenal wins, 3 Blackburn wins, 1 draw
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: Drew Swansea 2-2. Won replay 1-0.
    • Fourth Round: Beat Brighton 3-2.
  • Blackburn's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Bristol City 2-0.
    • Fourth Round: Beat Derby County 3-0.
  • Arsenal's Premier League Form: L-L-W-D-W-W
  • Blackburn's Championship Form: D-L-D-W-W-D
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 8 C / 47 F

Arsenal's victory over Barcelona was such a high point, it
was unfathomable that things could go so wrong after.
On February 16, 2011, Arsenal hosted Barcelona at the Emirates. It was a famous European night, as Arsenal came from behind to beat La Liga's giants, 2-1. At that moment in time, Arsenal were still in all four competitions, with a cup final to play at the end of the month. And then, it all unraveled. Arsenal lost to Birmingham in the League Cup Final. They lost the second leg of the tie with Barcelona. They lost in the FA Cup at Old Trafford. By April, their season was in a tailspin, and they fell from second place to fourth. The following season, as you know, was characterized by long stretches on both sides of the spectrum: long winless streaks, long winning streaks, and everything in between.

Two years have passed since that magical Andrei Arshavin goal. The diminutive Russian has scored only four goals for Arsenal since and two of those came in the League Cup. Of the 13 Arsenal players that featured in that game, only five are still with the team (that includes Arshavin, though I should note that Bacary Sagna was serving a suspension, and I'm not counting the on-loan Johan Djourou and Nicklas Bendtner.) Six of the starting XI have been sold (that includes Emmanuel Eboue, starting for the aforementioned suspended Sagna.)

This team has changed drastically in just two calendar years, but one fact remains: they still have not won a trophy since 2005. Two years ago, this team looked assured that they would win something to finally end the drought. Then, it all came crashing down. The pieces are only now starting to fit back together in certain spots.

As you know, the FA Cup remains Arsenal's best shot this season at winning silverware. The importance of this game is tremendous.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Gibbs (thigh)
Doubts: Wilshere (thigh), Koscielny (calf), Vermaelen (ankle)
Suspended: Jenkinson (one match)

There's a bit of good news in the injury report this week, as it appears Thomas Vermaelen could be available for selection again. The captain has not played since the 2-2 draw with Liverpool, meaning he has missed two matches. Kieran Gibbs is now the only long-term injury on the list, as he is out with a thigh problem. Lukasz Fabianski played midweek for the reserves, in a 2-2 draw with Manchester United.

As for the doubts, Jack Wilshere (thigh) and Laurent Koscielny (calf) both face late fitness tests, but you have to think both should be rested anyway, with Bayern Munich coming to town on Tuesday night. Arsenal should still have enough quality to beat a mid-table Championship side, but then again, most of their starting XI couldn't beat Bradford City, so who knows?

Carl Jenkinson serves a one match ban for his red card last week.

Blackburn Squad News

Out: Henley (hamstring), Etuhu (knee), Robinson (back), Best (knee)
Doubts: King (hamstring), D. Dunn (calf)

Paul Robinson will not be playing tomorrow, meaning
it's less likely Andrei Arshavin will score his first goal since
the Coventry game in September.
Paul Robinson has conceded 53 goals against Arsenal in his career, more than any other goalkeeper against any other opponent. Unfortunately for the Gunners, he won't be playing this one. There was some talk about Robinson leaving Rovers at the deadline, but nothing went through for the 33 year old, who has not played since December 7 with a back injury.

David Dunn is a doubt with a calf injury; he has not played since January 26 in the FA Cup against Derby County, though he was close to a return midweek against Brighton. Josh King, signed from Manchester United recently, is also a doubt with a hamstring problem; he also has not played since the Derby cup tie.

Leon Best has not played at all this season with a long-term knee injury. Dickson Etuhu is also out with a knee injury; he has not played since December. Adam Henley remains out with a hamstring problem.

Current Form

Blackburn led 1-0 midweek against Brighton, before the
Seagulls equalized from the penalty spot. The match ended 1-1.
Since a mid-January hiccup that included losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, Arsenal have rebounded nicely, winning four out of their last five overall, three of those four coming in the league, with the 2-2 draw with Liverpool as the only blemish. Arsenal have also kept consecutive clean sheets for the first time since the end of November (Montpellier and Aston Villa.)

So, let's talk a bit about Blackburn Rovers, as you've probably lost track of them in the Championship by now. Somehow, Steve Kean remained in charge of the squad despite the fans' clamoring for him to be sacked all of last season. Rovers started life in the Championship well, going unbeaten through their first six matches, leaving them at the top of the table. They suffered their first loss on September 21, to Middlesbrough. On September 28, Kean resigned, citing that his position with the club was untenable.

The loss to Boro started a streak of five matches without victory for Rovers, before they defeated Sheffield Wednesday and Watford at the end of October. On October 31, Blackburn named Henning Berg their new manager. Over the span of 10 games with Berg as the manager, Rovers won just once (4-1 over Peterborough,) lost six, and drew three, falling from 5th to 17th in the table. Berg was sacked after just 57 days in charge, making him the shortest tenured manager in Blackburn history (which is odd, considering that Kean held onto that job for a stupefyingly long time.)

Since Berg's sacking, Blackburn have lost just once in their last eight Championship matches, while winning their two FA Cup ties in the process to progress this far. On January 11, Rovers hired Michael Appleton as their manager (Appleton had just served a 65-day stint as manager of Blackpool before switching.) Appleton's first match in charge, a 2-1 loss to Charlton stands as Blackburn's only loss since Berg was sacked.

Blackburn played this midweek, drawing 1-1 at Brighton & Hove Albion on Tuesday night. Currently in 8th place, Blackburn are six points back of the final Championship play-off spot.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Blackburn have not met this season, after Rovers were relegated from the Premier League last year. The two meetings last season were wildly different affairs, with both sides winning once. At Ewood Park in September, as part of their early season struggles, Arsenal scored twice on their own net in what amounted to a 4-3 loss. At the Emirates in early February, Blackburn were reduced to ten men during the course of the first half, and Arsenal went on to pound the Rovers, 7-1. I won't tell you who had a hat trick for Arsenal that day; you can figure that out for yourself. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a brace, Mikel Arteta had one, and Thierry Henry had the last one, which was later called a Blackburn own goal by the Dubious Goals Committee.

All-time in this competition, Arsenal and Blackburn have met in seven ties; Arsenal have won four of them, Blackburn have won three. The last meeting, in 2007's fifth round saw a 0-0 draw at the Emirates. Blackburn went on to win the replay at home, 1-0, with Benni McCarthy scoring the winner in the 87th minute. That loss came days after Arsenal lost the League Cup Final to Chelsea at Wembley.

That cup tie was the only one of the seven that was not won by the team drawn at home (aside from neutral venue matches, of course.) Arsenal won the first two FA Cup ties with Blackburn, 2-0 and 3-1 in 1901 and 1926, respectively. Blackburn won the next two ties, 1-0 and 3-0 in 1928 and 1966, respectively. Arsenal then won back-to-back ties by 3-0 scorelines, in 2001 and 2005, the latter of which was the semifinal before Arsenal's last FA Cup win.

The Referee

The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean. Please excuse me for one moment:

Okay, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Dean. Arsenal's form with Dean is now D-D-L-D-L-D-L-L-W-L-L-D-L-W-L-D-D-L-D*-L. The D* represents losing to Bradford City on penalties (which counts as a draw when discussing form.) Two wins from 20, with 10 losses and eight draws.

If you want some glimmer of hope, one of the two wins came in the FA Cup against a Championship side, Leeds United, in a replay at Elland Road in January of 2011. The other win was over Tottenham, so that's nice, right? And, the last time Arsenal saw Mike Dean, it's not really Dean's fault that Laurent Koscielny briefly turned into a rugby player, is it?

Dean has taken charge of four Championship matches this season, but none have involved Blackburn Rovers. Last year with Dean, Blackburn had a record of two wins and one loss. One of the wins came at Old Trafford, the other was over QPR. The loss was to Chelsea.

Of the four red cards Dean has shown this year, two of them have been to Arsenal players.

Around the Fifth Round

Note that Chelsea's Europa League fixture prevented them from being able to play their fourth round replay with Brentford until this weekend. The fifth round tie between the winner of that replay and Middlesbrough will be played Wednesday night.

As of this moment, there are 17 teams remaining (as there's still one replay to be completed.) Of those 17, seven are from the Premier League, six are from the Championship, three are from League One, none are from League Two, and one (Luton Town) is from Conference National.
  • Saturday (early): Luton Town v. Millwall; Kenilworth Road, Luton
  • Saturday: Milton Keynes Dons v. Barnsley; Stadium:MK, Milton Keynes
  • Saturday (late): Oldham Athletic v. Everton; Boundary Park, Oldham
  • Sunday (early): Chelsea v. Brentford (4th Round Replay); Stamford Bridge, London
  • Sunday: Manchester City v. Leeds United; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Sunday (late): Huddersfield Town v. Wigan Athletic; John Smith's Stadium, Huddersfield
  • Monday (night): Manchester United v. Reading; Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Wednesday (night): Middlesbrough v. Chelsea or Brentford; Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough

Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal: Battle Level

Hello all! John, your Preview by Numbers guy here, pinch hitting for Sean on this match recap. I feel like every time I end up writing the recap, it's the type of game that left my nerves completely shattered at the end (see the 3-3 draw with Fulham from earlier this year.) Let's get on with this, shall we?

There is often a lot of talk in the media about Arsenal's shortcomings: prone to defensive errors, a bit dodgy on set pieces, and a lack of mental resolve when "the going gets tough." On Saturday at the Stadium of Light, Arsenal's defensive abilities were put to a stern test, via injuries and a red card, and the Gunners passed. It was a vital victory, in a stadium where Arsenal have struggled in years past and on a day when Tottenham and Chelsea won as well.

In terms of team news, there was good news at the start, as Laurent Koscielny passed his fitness test and appeared ready to start for Arsenal, despite his calf injury on international duty midweek. Then, in warm-ups, Koscielny aggravated that injury and could not play after all. Since the side had been named already, Carl Jenkinson came in to start at right back, Bacary Sagna was pushed into the center of defense, and Arsenal's bench had one fewer substitute available.

Elsewhere in the side, Aaron Ramsey got the start in midfield along with Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere, while Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud comprised the front three. There was no place in the starting XI for Lukas Podolski or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

As for Sunderland, Lee Cattermole passed fit and got the start, while Martin O'Neill opted to keep the out-of-form Stephane Sessegnon in place behind Steven Fletcher in his 4-4-1-1. Lifelong Newcastle fan Danny Graham, just purchased from Swansea at the end of the transfer window, would not yet get his first start for the Black Cats.

In fully expected style, Cattermole was booked within 88 seconds for a foul. The opening exchanges were played at a break-neck speed, with chances for both sides signalling that Sunderland were not content with just parking the bus as they did at the Emirates in August. Just eight minutes in, Carl Jenkinson went into referee Anthony Taylor's book for a foul on Jack Colback.

Arsenal had the better of play in the first half and were finally rewarded for it in the 36th minute. Jack Wilshere played a ball for Theo Walcott, who himself did not have much space. Theo squared the ball over, instead of opting for the turn himself, playing it to Santi Cazorla, who fired a low shot through two Sunderland defenders and past the diving Simon Mignolet. And so, it was 1-0 to the boys in the yellow and redcurrant (does the purple and black clash with red and white?) at halftime, though it probably could have been more.

Unfortunately, in the second half, things got a bit dicey. And, by a bit, I mean holy lord, what a ridiculous half.

Sunderland started the half with a substitution, taking off Cattermole (who had been carrying that yellow card) and bringing in former Gunner and set piece specialist Sebastian Larsson. A minute in, Sunderland had a shout for a penalty as Sessegnon went down easily in the area as he tried to round Nacho Monreal, but Taylor waived play on.

Things started to turn further in the wrong direction when Jack Wilshere went down in the 49th minute and immediately signaled that he needed a substitution. Oddly, he never went down the tunnel for treatment, and sat on the substitute's bench for the rest of the match. Abou Diaby came in to replace the young Englishman, who had played 90 minutes for the national team against Brazil on Wednesday. Post-match word from Arsene Wenger seems to suggest Wilshere's injury will keep him out "4-5 days."

With Wilshere no longer in the match, Sunderland started to take the game to Arsenal a bit more, and in the 63rd minute, Sessegnon was clattered into by Jenkinson, who knew he was in trouble and waved his finger in the hopes that it would convince Taylor it wasn't worthy of a second yellow. Of course, it was, and Jenkinson was given his marching orders.

Speaking of the referee, Anthony Taylor had an abysmal game, frequently failing to call obvious fouls. To be honest, his errors went both ways and I think, in the end, neither side could feel particularly aggrieved by his decision making. From an Arsenal perspective, however, the cynical challenges from Sunderland added up and took its toll physically, on Wilshere especially.

Back to the match, as Arsenal now had 27 minutes plus injury time to defend a one goal lead on ten men while already carrying a scattered back four. A daunting task, for sure. Rather than make a substitution to bring on the only available defender on the bench (Ignasi Miquel), Arsene Wenger opted to shift Aaron Ramsey back into Jenkinson's right back position. Miquel eventually did come on, for Theo Walcott, in the 87th minute.

Sunderland, sensing they had a chance to get something from the match now, threw the kitchen sink at Arsenal over the final half an hour of play. It has to be said, while Arsenal have struggled recently with defensive lapses, the makeshift back four plus Wojciech Szczesny were all brilliant when they had to be today. Heroic defending from a out-of-position Sagna and Ramsey, plus what might have been Szczesny's best game in an Arsenal shirt. He made a particularly fantastic save on Fletcher in the 77th minute, which should have been flagged for handball from the Sunderland forward in the build-up. Szczesny made another brilliant save on Fletcher, this time from a header, in the 85th. The resulting corner came to chaos, but Titus Bramble fired wide from five yards.

Arsenal had a number of chances to extend the lead as well, but a few players fired over the bar (Cazorla and Giroud were especially guilty of this in the final minutes when they should have been taking the ball to the corner to kill time) and Theo Walcott had a shot bounce off the woodwork in the 75th. The comfortable margin of victory would just not come for Arsenal. Ultimately, the extra goal was unnecessary, and you can see from Wojciech Szczesny's facial expression how important these three points were.

We hear so much about Arsenal's frailties from the media all the time. So often, the chorus shouts that Arsenal struggles to raise their battle level when the going gets tough. For two weeks now, Arsenal have silenced those critics, first by beating Stoke at their own game, then by rising above adversity against Sunderland.

The trick is to keep it going.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Jenkinson 5, Sagna 7, Mertesacker 7, Monreal 7, Arteta 8, Ramsey 7, Wilshere 6 (Diaby 6), Cazorla 8, Walcott 6 (Miquel N/A), Giroud 6.

Man of the Match: It was certainly a tale of two halves for Arsenal: Santi Cazorla ran the show in the first and scored the game's only goal, while Wojciech Szczesny shut the door on Sunderland's comeback effort in the second. Ultimately, the nod has to go to the Pole in Goal, Wojciech Szczesny, for his string of brilliant saves to keep the clean sheet.

Preview by Numbers: Sunderland v. Arsenal

Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Saturday, February 9
10:00 a.m. EST, 15:00 GMT
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Anthony Taylor
    • Assistants: Andy Garratt and Darren England
    • 4th Official: Tony Bates
  • Reverse Fixture: Arsenal 0 - 0 Sunderland
  • This Match, Last Year: Sunderland 1 - 2 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 54 Arsenal wins, 50 Sunderland wins, 39 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: D-L-L-W-D-W
  • Sunderland's League Form: L-L-W-W-D-L
  • Weather: 40% Chance of Showers, 6 C / 43 F
What I Did On My International Break, By Lukas Podolski.
Isn't it just classic Arsenal to follow a solid home victory against the antithesis of football with an unnecessary round of international fixtures that create injury problems in the squad?

While it is unclear if Thomas Vermaelen is available again, we know for a fact that Kieran Gibbs is out and Johan Djourou is out on loan. That means we're a little bit light at the back, and now comes some cryptic word that Laurent Koscielny could be missing for a while. Do you realize how dangerously close we are to Sebastien Squillaci playing?!? Maybe Andre Santos can play center back...

All that aside, it's time to focus again. Three points are up for grabs against mid-table Sunderland in a stadium where Arsenal have had their struggles in the recent past (one win from five.) Many of those non-wins came courtesy of Darren Bent goals, which are no longer a concern, but Sunderland still poses a variety of threats up front, including Steven Fletcher, Stephane Sessegnon and Danny Graham, just signed from Swansea.

Every point is precious when you're chasing the leaders. It was at this stage of last season in the league where Arsenal started to come on strong. Every point dropped in February is another point you need to salvage later in the season. This is a pivotal month for the Gunners. This has to be a win.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Gibbs (thigh), Fabianski (ankle)
Doubts: Walcott (knock), Koscielny (calf), Ramsey (calf), Vermaelen (ankle), Coquelin (hamstring)

Do you realize how close we are to seeing
this guy start?
Bonkers, isn't it? Let's start with what we know: Kieran Gibbs still has another two or three weeks out, at best. It appears that Nacho Monreal will retain his place at left back, at least until Arsenal plays Bayern and Nacho finds himself cup tied.

As for center back, there are two doubts, and that's the scary part. Thomas Vermaelen could be in line for a return from an ankle problem (he did not play for Belgium midweek.) If he doesn't and it turns out that Laurent Koscielny's calf injury is as serious as feared, it could very well be Squillaci Time! Dear God, hold me.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey skipped Welsh duty with a calf problem, so he's a doubt. Theo Walcott picked up a knock as England apparently won the World Cup by beating Brazil in a game that didn't count. Francis Coquelin was going to be close to a return from his hamstring injury around now anyway. The same goes for Lukasz Fabianski and his ankle injury, but he shouldn't be seeing any first team action any time soon.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, One of those orange traffic cones, Monreal, Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Walcott, Giroud.

Sunderland Squad News

Out: Brown (knee)
Doubts: Cattermole (knee), Cuellar (hamstring)

There's very little to glean from the squad news available for Sunderland. Wes Brown is out indefinitely (likely the rest of this season) with a knee injury he suffered in October. As for the doubts, Lee Cattermole could be returning from a knee injury of his own, possibly injured while wrecking up cars, I don't know. Carlos Cuellar has been out since picking up a hamstring injury against Bolton Wanderers on January 5; he was withdrawn from that match in the 57th minute.

Danny Rose, on loan from Tottenham and still famous there for scoring a ridiculous goal against Manuel Almunia, returned from injury by coming off the bench at halftime last week.

Current Form

Danny Graham failed to score on his debut for Sunderland.
Well, after last week's ridiculous Jekyll & Hyde analogy, it was good to see that Mr. Horrible Defense didn't show his ugly face at the Emirates in Arsenal's 1-0 win over Stoke. Then again, since Stoke didn't really have the ball much during the match and never truly threatened, it's hard to know what to make of that. Perhaps most importantly, it's the psychological edge of finally keeping a clean sheet (Arsenal's first since the Swansea replay and second since Wigan away in December) that matters most.

Speaking of Wigan away in December, that was the last time Arsenal beat a top flight side away from home (their other road win since was in the FA Cup against Brighton & Hove Albion.) Their other road results since include a draw at Southampton, a draw at Swansea, and a loss at Chelsea. Given that Sunderland starts with S, it would appear form is calling for a draw... After this match, Arsenal will play three straight at home before either a replay with Blackburn should that be necessary or the North London derby on March 3.

As for Sunderland, they have won twice since scalping Manchester City 1-0 on Boxing Day. After that, the Black Cats lost to both Spurs and Liverpool. They drew Bolton in the FA Cup, then lost the replay at home. They managed wins against West Ham and Wigan, then a drew against Swansea, so things were looking up. Last week, however, they fell to Reading, 2-1, after giving up an 85th minute winner to Jimmy Kebe. The loss dropped Sunderland to 12th in the table. They are eight points clear of the relegation zone.

Match Facts

Thierry Henry celebrates his winner at the Stadium of Light
last season. I forgot how much those kits looked like pajamas.
Arsenal and Sunderland met in the first fixture of this season at the Emirates, as the visitors frustrated Arsenal's offense en route to a 0-0 draw. Arsenal had just a hair over 70% of the possession but 10 of their shots missed the target. So, it was a lot like last week's game against Stoke, only the match winning goal never came (oddly, Chris Foy was the referee for both.)

Arsenal won this fixture last year, 2-1, at around the same weekend in February, though it did not come easily. The match was 0-0 until the 70th minute, when Per Mertesacker injured his ankle on the poor quality Stadium of Light pitch. His crumpling to the turf meant that James McClean swooped in and scored easily, putting the Black Cats up 1-0. The big German was replaced by Aaron Ramsey and the Welshman equalized just three minutes after coming onto the pitch. In injury time, an Andrei Arshavin cross found Thierry Henry, who scored the match winner, and added another legendary goal to his tally in the process.

A week later, Arsenal lost at the Stadium of Light in the FA Cup, 2-0. Sebastien Squillaci had to come on in the tenth minute, replacing the injured Francis Coquelin. Kieran Richardson scored first just before halftime. Squillaci was then subbed off himself in the 53rd minute, but Sunderland put the game out of reach after a bizarre play which led to an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own goal. Sunderland then lost to Everton in the next round of the cup.

Arsenal's 2-1 win last year is their only win at the Stadium of Light in their last five attempts (including the cup loss a week later.) Prior to that, Arsenal drew 1-1 there in September of 2010 (Darren Bent scoring a 95th minute equalizer after Alex Song had been sent off by Phil Dowd and Tomas Rosicky missed a penalty,) lost 1-0 there in November of 2009 (Darren Bent had that goal, too,) and drew 1-1 in October of 2008 (Cesc Fabregas had the injury time equalizer after Grant Leadbitter scored in the 86th.)

The Referee

That's not an expression of much confidence, is it?
The referee is Manchester-based Anthony Taylor. I'm not really sure how a referee based in Manchester is allowed to work a match involving either of the Manchester sides, but Taylor was actually excellent in City's draw with Liverpool last weekend, from what I could gather.

Arsenal have seen Taylor twice this season and won on both occasions: 1-0 over QPR at the Emirates (in which Stephane Mbia was sent off) and 5-2 over Reading at the Madejski (in which Santi Cazorla had a hat trick.) Then again, over the course of three matches over previous seasons, Taylor denied to call two potential Arsenal penalties, so who knows?

Taylor has taken charge of just one Sunderland match this season and it was three weeks ago, as Sunderland won 3-2 at Wigan.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Tottenham Hotspur v. Newcastle United; White Hart Lane, London
  • Saturday: Chelsea v. Wigan Athletic; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Fulham; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Saturday: Stoke City v. Reading; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Queens Park Rangers; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday (late): Southampton v. Manchester City; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Sunday (early): Aston Villa v. West Ham United; Villa Park, Birmingham
  • Sunday (late): Manchester United v. Everton; Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Monday night: Liverpool v. West Bromwich Albion; Anfield, Liverpool

Arsenal 1-0 Stoke City: Orc-Slaying

The dirty, cheating orcs made their annual raid on Ashburton Grove - and as per usual, they weren't that imposing away from the unfriendly confines of Mordor.

The truth is, Arsenal beat them at their own game today. How often can you say that? This was a gritty, physical match - the kind in which our boys have been found wanting in seasons past. This time, the Gunners gave as good as they got and found a way to snatch all three points.

No complaints today, in other words.

The boss made several changes to the side that disappointed against the Scousers, most notably throwing new boy Nacho Monreal straight into the team. Mikel Arteta also made a welcome return to the center of the park, supported by the returning Abou Diaby.

Unsurprisingly, the home side looked far more solid than they have in weeks past. Stoke had set out their stall to defend, which was not their ideal tactic. If I were Tony Pulis (and I thank your deity of choice every day that I am not), I would have started Kenwyne Jones, Cameron Jerome and Peter Crouch all together and tried to take advantage of our recent defensive frailty. 

Instead, their conservative team selection allowed Arsenal to get comfortable in the game, and they quickly dominated possession. Chances were at a premium, but that was down to Stoke's excellent defending. Whatever we may think of Robert Huth and Ryan Shawcross, they are top-class defenders and they kept their team in it with many timely interventions.

That said, it should be noted that Arsenal attacked with a sense of purpose. Far too often this season, the first half has seen our guys dally on the ball with no impetus to get forward. There was a different feel around this game though, and it was nice to see.

Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic is arguably the best in the division though, and he played his part in keeping us off the board as well. A half-hour in, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain knocked down Jack Wilshere's corner and did well to collect the ball, turn and shoot. Begovic's positioning was spot-on though, and he was able to fend off the shot.

He wasn't done, though. Both Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny had decent chances off of headers, but both times Begovic was equal to the task. It was frustrating, but also heartening that we were winning airborne chances against our mutant guests.

The Bosnian stopper's best save came a bit later though, Oxlade-Chamberlain again the unlucky victim. Diaby and Wilshere combined to set up the Ox with a good shooting chance from the left side of the penalty area. It wasn't a perfect angle, but the Ox struck it well towards the far post. Begovic's positioning was perfect again though, and he was able to tip it wide at full stretch.

As a member of the goalkeeping fraternity, I have to salute the man's efforts. He is a top-class keeper. If the rumors of him leaving Stoke are true, I'll be thrilled for him - he deserves to play at a higher level.

That about took us to halftime, but there was one incident left to come. Our newest Gunner went for a 50-50 header with Jonathan Walters, and the two met head-on. I never wish injury on anyone, even a Stoke City player, but it was fantastic to see an Arsenal man not shirk away from the physical side of the game. Even better, he came out ahead in the challenge, arguably striking a further psychological blow against the visiting Mongol hordes.

I'll go one better - I think Arsenal have finally sussed this lot out. The boogeyman was just a dumbass in a cheap plastic mask all this time.

The second half continued in the same vein, Arsenal bossing play and Stoke resisting gamely. Monreal began to assert himself after the break, his perfect cross to Giroud broken up by an excellent intervention from Huth.

Meanwhile, the linesman on the side we attacked in the second half (besides looking like an uglier version of Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond) quickly reached nemesis status with a series of missed decisions. Mr. Magoo had a less developed case of myopia than this jackass. He missed several fouls, including the straying hand of Shawcross poking Theo Walcott in the eye. More about him in a bit.

I always believed the breakthrough was coming, and it seemed likelier when the boss made his changes. The tiring Oxlade-Chamberlain came off, as did Diaby. The latter had a solid game, but was increasingly redundant as the visitors' possession dipped below 30%. Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla came on to give us more creative options.

As the match went on, Stoke's defending became more desperate. Chris Foy had to produce a yellow card on several occasions for cynical challenges. One of these, when Andy Wilkinson scythed down Walcott, resulted in a dangerous free kick. There was some confusion as to who would take it, but Podolski eventually took charge. His low effort was deflected by a jumping Stoke player and went past the wrong-footed Begovic. Cue bedlam - that is, until our nemesis linesman flagged me. Walcott was in an offside position, but he had nothing to do with the play.

Thankfully, Foy came over and had a chat with him. One brief discussion later, the senior official overturned his idiot companion and allowed the goal. Arsenal's perseverance paid off after all.

One positive aspect of Arsenal's play this season is that we're often dangerous immediately after scoring a goal - look at how often they've come in bunches. It almost happened again in this game after a slashing run from Cazorla. He did the hard part, but then fired his effort over the crossbar with Begovic well beaten. That would have sealed the result, undoubtedly.

It ended up not mattering. Arsenal saw out the remaining time with calm and elan. Stoke never threatened Wojceich Szczesny's goal, but they did find time for a few trademark ructions before the final whistle. First, Shawcross and Koscielny both slid for a loose ball, the former accidentally-on-purpose getting the boot in to our man. Why Shawcross is allowed outside without a leash, I'll never know.

The most hilarious was left for last though, as a fair challenge from Arteta on the substitute Michael Owen led to an epic bout of handbags. Surely, even Louis C.K. can't come up with anything more hilarious than little Owen trying to act the hardman. Whatever his pretensions may have been, Wilshere came over quickly to sort him out. Have I mentioned lately that this man should be captain?

The final whistle went soon after, giving Arsenal three massive points. Results elsewhere were kind as well; Swansea City and Chelsea losing while Everton drew. That gives us some breathing room on Liverpool, and also closes the gap on Everton in 5th to a solitary point. Chelsea are now only 5 points clear in 4th.

With all of that in mind, today can only be seen in a positive light. Points were gained on all of our rivals, and we also beat the orcs at their own game. Ironically, in the end it turned out that the northern hordes didn't like it up 'em. Have some of that, you Potters.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Monreal 7, Mertesacker 7, Koscielny 7, Sagna 7, Arteta 7, Diaby 7 (Cazorla 7), Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 (Podolski 7), Wilshere 7, Walcott 7, Giroud 7

Man of the Match: It's hard to say that anyone stood out - this was very much an excellent team performance, everyone doing their part. Still, I'll give it to Mikel Arteta for an all-action performance in the middle of the park. Welcome back, sir.