Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Tottenham Hotspur

Emirates Stadium, London
Sunday, September 1
11:00 a.m. EDT, 16:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Michael Oliver
    • Assistants: Simon Long and Jake Collin
    • 4th Official: Jonathan Moss
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 5 - 2 Tottenham
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 71 Arsenal wins, 54 Tottenham wins, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: D-W-W-W // L-W
  • Tottenham's League Form: W-D-W-W // W-W
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 19 C / 67 F
It's a little too early in the season to make sweeping generalizations about what this one individual match means for the season as a whole. These three points count the same as any other three points. Then again, it is the North London derby...

So, I'm going to keep this short:

I believe I can say, without hyperbole, that this is the most critical football match in the history of humanity.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Podolski (exploded hamstring,) Oxlade-Chamberlain (semi-exploded knee,) Arteta (garbled thigh,) Vermaelen (bent back,) Diaby (missing knee)

Well, Mathieu Flamini is available for selection. That's something, right? Right? As of press time, Arsenal have not signed anyone else, but there are still two days before the match to sign hahahaha, I'm sorry, I can't even say it with a straight face.

The news on Lukas Podolski is well and truly terrible, as the German international is set to miss 8 to 10 weeks (which, in Arsenal time, is about six months) with the hamstring injury he picked up against Fenerbahce. Add that to the list of already missing players and the squad looks even more light than the "incredibly light" it already was.

On Wednesday, when Fenerbahce were formally kicked out of European competition, the Internet was outraged, with many saying "why couldn't they have been kicked out before we lost Podolski to injury against them and before they kicked around Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey?" Since the latter two are fine and will be available on Sunday, the point regarding Poldi holds no water; it's a hamstring injury, he could have picked it up against anybody. It's not like Arsenal would've been through without playing an opponent; Podolski could just have easily done his hamstring against Red Bull Salzburg. It's annoying, but it's part and parcel of the game.

Anyway, no, seriously, spend some fucking money.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Rosicky, Cazorla, Walcott, Giroud.

Tottenham Squad News

Out: Assou-Ekotto ("knee,") Adebayor (unwanted,) Lennon (foot,) Bale (Real Madrid)

Tottenham's bids are getting really audacious now...
Spurs have a relatively clean bill of health, largely because God isn't punishing them for not spending this summer like a certain other North London club. Aaron Lennon missed training Wednesday with a foot injury, but Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Emmanuel Adebayor, and Gareth Bale are all absent as they are all likely on their way out of the club.

With regards to Spurs' summer moves, seriously, I went to the BBC Web site just now (I'm writing this at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time Thursday,) and saw a headline out of the corner of my eye that read "Tottenham to sign £8.5m Cthulhu." I thought, "Wow, they're even signing cosmic monsters now. That sounds about right." Apparently, it's actually center back Vlad Chiriches, though I have no evidence that says he's not a cosmic monster.

Tottenham's strategy has literally been "buy everyone," which is in stark contrast to Arsenal's strategy of "well, is he free? How about French?" Spurs have spent nearly £58 million on the likes of Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado, and Etienne Capoue. And yet, they are still linked with more and more names, including Erik Lamela for another £25.7 million, and also this Cthulhu guy.

Current Form

Spurs' have won both of their matches from the penalty
It's still early in the season, so "form" is a bit of an ethereal property (well, it always is, in a sense.) You could say Arsenal are in "good form" right now, as they have won their last three matches by a combined scoreline of 8-1. But, you should also take that information with a grain of salt because they haven't played any opponents of particular quality yet (sorry, Fulham.) On the other hand, you can't fault Arsenal for not having played any opponents of particular quality yet. Since the season opening debacle, the Gunners have done everything they have had to; what more could you ask for?

As for Spurs, well, they've been winning too. Both of their league wins have come by 1-0 scorelines and their only goals of the year have come from the penalty spot. Soooooo, "don't concede penalties" seems like a solid tactical plan, right? Spurs have also advanced to the group stage of the Europa League by beating Dinamo Tbilisi by 5-0 and 3-0 scorelines.

Match Facts

I'm not even sure which year this is from.
If history has a way of repeating itself (which seems apparent in the way Arsenal handles transfer windows,) then maybe that's good news for the Gunners in this individual match. I'm sure you're all aware that Arsenal won this fixture last year and the year before by identical 5-2 scorelines

As last year's story goes, Spurs were well and truly in control, up 1-0 in the early going (with an earlier goal disallowed) before Emmanuel Adebayor was shown a straight red card by Howard Webb. From there, Arsenal took over against 10-man Spurs: Per Mertesacker's first Arsenal goal equalized before Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud made it 3-1 at halftime. Santi Cazorla made it 4-1 at the hour mark before Gareth Bale pinged one back in the 71st. Things felt a little nervy for a bit, because as an Arsenal fan, I know no lead is safe. Theo Walcott scored in injury time to make the scoreline a duplicate of the previous season's.

Of course, Spurs did go on to win the rematch at the Lane in March in what was a pretty even affair throughout, though Arsenal were undone by two minutes of stupidity from Tom Vermaelen. Vermaelen has only started once since that game, and that was only because Mertesacker was banned for a match.

At Highbury/the Emirates in the Premier League era, Arsenal have a record of 12 wins, 2 losses, and 7 draws against Tottenham.

The Referee

I think this is part of the Macarena.
The referee is Northumberland-based Michael Oliver. Arsenal saw Oliver twice last season, in their 1-1 draw with Everton at Goodison Park and their 3-2 win at Brighton & Hove Albion in the fourth round of the FA Cup. For Tottenham last season, Oliver was in charge of two matches, both Spurs losses: 2-1 at Manchester City last November and 3-2 at Liverpool in March. Spurs have actually lost three straight with Oliver (including a 2-1 loss at home to Norwich in April 2012,) dating back to a 3-1 win over Stevenage in an FA Cup replay.

Oliver, who turned 28 in February, is the youngest referee to ever work a Premier League game, a record he took from Stuart Attwell (who has since been demoted.) Oliver's biggest honor to date was to referee the FA Cup semi-final between Wigan and Millwall last year; he was also the fourth official at last year's League Cup final and this year's Community Shield. Oliver, who I once considered "out of his depth" in 2010/11, has come a very long way in the past two or so years.

Around the League
  • August 21: Chelsea 2 - 1 Aston Villa, played earlier, because:
  • Friday, UEFA Super Cup: Bayern Munich v. Chelsea; Eden Arena, Prague
  • Saturday (early): Manchester City v. Hull City; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Saturday: Cardiff City v. Everton; Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
  • Saturday: Newcastle United v. Fulham; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Southampton; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Stoke City; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Saturday (late): Crystal Palace v. Sunderland; Selhurst Park, London
  • Sunday (early): Liverpool v. Manchester United; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Sunday (early): West Bromwich Albion v. Swansea City; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich

Arsenal 2-0 Fenerbahçe SK: Only One Gear Required

In one of the other playoff ties, Austria Wein scored an 83rd-minute goal against Dinamo Zagreb that meant that they still lost 3-2 at home on the day, but they scraped through to the Champions League for the first time ever by the odd goal in seven. Needless to say, our game against Fener was on the polar opposite of the adrenaline scale, a serene procession calmly executed on our way to the promised land of a 16th straight group stage qualification.

Arsenal were a bit too languid for my liking in the early going though, with our opponents eager to get an early one to make the contest interesting. Wojciech Szczesny was sharp though, and did well to repel Raul Merieles when he was clean through on our left wing.

After that, the Turkish side huffed and puffed, but for the most part could not get beyond our back line. Bacary Sagna in particular was excellent - he often pushed up to break up attacks outside the penalty area, a sort of golden-braided libero in the Mattheus style. He's similar to Laurent Koscielny in that sense, and so far he's proving to be equally as strong a partner for the more stay-at-home Per Mertesacker.

Despite the early wobbles, Arsenal managed to effectively close out the tie before the half-hour mark. Lukas Podolski's ball into the area wasn't great, but the defender touched it into the path of Theo Walcott. Volkan Demirel came off his line to meet him, but that same defender made what normally would be a great saving tackle. Unfortunately for them, it took the keeper out of the play, and the ball bounced out to the wide-open Aaron Ramsey. Right place, right time for the Welshman, who easily tapped into the unguarded net.

The visitors might have pegged us back immediately, as Szczesny went a bit walkabout once again. A high ball came in that the entire Arsenal defense dithered about dealing with, all of them a good 2-3 yards away from it. As a keeper myself, I get why Szczesny took the law into his own hands - the red mist takes over and you feel like you have to do something if they are not going to. Anyway, he got nowhere near it, but was fouled in the aftermath. Despite his overall excellent play, I'm sure this is all you'll hear about from the press.


It did seem to wake the Gunners up though, and we easily could have been two goals to the good a few minutes later. Ramsey played a brilliant through-ball into the path of Olivier Giroud, who was in alone on Demirel. He held onto it a second too long though, giving Turkey's number one enough time to come out and block at his feet. A good chance went begging there.

Speaking of good chances going begging, only the brilliance of Szczesny kept Fenerbahce from equalizing a bit later. Emmanuel Emenike brushed off Sagna in the Frenchman's only poor moment of the match. Emenike was in 1-v-1 with Szczesny, but the Pole stood tall and made the Nigerian make the first move. Emenike's shot had a ton of pace on it, but Szczesny was able to tip it onto the post. The defense was all over the shop in the resulting hooley, allowing Bruno Alves a free follow-up shot. Szczesny, like he did against Fulham, recovered quickly and got over in time to block with his chest.

Seriously, will the haters shut up about this kid already?

That slowed the visitors down, and just before halftime, Giroud once again should have scored. Once again, he failed to put it away. This time, Santi Cazorla hit the overlapping Nacho Monreal with a gorgeous pass, and he in turn played in Giroud. It was a tough ask to hit it on the full run, but he probably should have at least hit the target. Instead, he scooped it miles over.

The second half was a bit more sedate, the fight long since gone from Fenerbahce in any serious sense. They mostly resorted to kicking anything in a red shirt, apparently with the referee's blessing. I find it amazing that (as John alluded to in Preview by Numbers) the same guy who called a penalty on Thomas Vermaelen for breathing on a Montpelier player last year allowed these idiots to kick us in the air for 45 minutes with nary a peep from his whistle. If we never see this dipshit again, it'll be far too soon.

Saying the half was more sedate didn't mean we took our foot entirely off the pedal, though. The excellent Cazorla (once again an absolute magician on the ball) tested Demirel from a tough angle only to see the keeper do fantastically well to tip it wide. Later, a free kick won when Merieles idiotically handled outside the area was taken by Walcott. Demirel was obviously expecting a cross, as Theo's shot was dead central over his hands but still beat him all ends-up. Lucky for him, it hit the crossbar

The second goal did come in the 72nd minute though, and Ramsey again was the man on the end of it. A ridiculously-poor pass from one of their lot was intercepted by Monreal, starting an excellent multi-pass move. Yaya Sanogo, who was on as a sub for Giroud, had two nice touches in there. The second played it out to Wilshere, in space on the left. His pass split the Fener defense, and Gibbs had the whole left side of the penalty area, Alves left in the dust. Egemen Korkamaz, the other center-half, came over to help, leaving the middle gaping. Merieles was faffing about getting back, and the right-back was never going to get there. Ramsey was all alone in the center, and Demirel never even bothered to dive as the ball nestled cozily in the far corner.

Everything after that was just playing out time, though there were two incidents of note. Ryo Miyaichi came on and hit a lovely cross to Jenkinson, who somehow was on the end of it in the area. He probably should have scored, but could only hit Demirel. Also, Ramsey limped off late with what looked like a groin injury - hopefully he is OK.

At any rate, what looked to be a fearsome playoff opponent in the wake of the Villa match turned out to be a paper tiger, all too easily brushed aside on our way to the group stage. Fenerbahce had the names on the teamsheet to present a severe challenge, but they were all found wanting to a man when it came time to show it on the pitch. Still, Arsenal did brilliantly well over the two legs to see them off so emphatically with such a depleted squad.

Over to you, Arsene. Reinforcements. NOW.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8: Yes, an 8. So he came out once and missed, so bloody what? Without that double-save on Emenike and Alves early on, this may have been a much different game.

Monreal 6: Kind of an iffy effort, especially in his defensive duties. Was constantly too far off of his man, and got sucked in to central positions where the CBs had it covered already too often. I'll chalk this up to knocking off the rust, though.

Sagna 8: I thought he was excellent on the day - calm and composed, and made several timely interceptions that broke up attacks before they got dangerous.

Mertesacker 7: Calm, cool and collected as ever.

Jenkinson 6: Not his best effort. Poor in his crossing, should have scored late on too. Decent defensively but we know now that he can do better.

Ramsey 8: He goes from strength to strength, as evidenced with his two goals. We can only hope he's fit enough to play in the upcoming NLD.

Wilshere 7: Earlier in his career, he might have gotten himself sent off in the wake of constantly being kicked with the silent assent of a shitty referee. Instead, he displayed a nice range of passing and kept his emotions in check.

Podolski 7: Never really got into the flow of things, but had a few decent touches before going off with what looked like a hamstring injury.

(Gibbs) 8: Especially lively down the left when he came on. For a guy who is very much a left back, the offensive side of his game is drastically improving in a short period of time.

Cazorla 8: Pulled all the strings, as ever. The Fenerbahce players surely don't care if they never see him again.

Walcott 7: Some nice work down the right, had a nice assist and was unlucky to score on the free kick. Decent effort.

(Miyachi) 7: He was all right in a brief cameo. He put in an excellent cross to Jenkinson in injury time that probably should have resulted in a goal.

Giroud 6: A bit of a quiet game, he had two decent chances to score and probably should have done better on both of them.

(Sanogo) 7: Decent hold-up play by the new man, including those two nice touches in the build-up to the second goal. Nothing earth-shattering but he did look like he belonged.

Man of the Match:  Aaron Ramsey

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Fenerbahce, Champions League Play-Off, Second Leg

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, August 27
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials from Spain
    • Referee: Carlos Velasco Carballo
    • Assistants: Roberto Alonso and Juan Yuste
    • 4th Official: Javier Rodriguez
    • Additional Assistants: Carlos Gomez and Carlos Del Cerro
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 3 Arsenal wins, 2 draws
  • Arsenal's European Form: D-W-L-L-W // W
  • Fenerbahce's European Form: D-W-L // D-W-L
  • Weather: Clear, 20 C / 67 F
Winning is fun!
Suffice it to say, things are in a much better state in Arsenal-land right now than they were at this time last week. It's funny what two comprehensive road victories can do to your psyche.

However, the job isn't done yet. And, thankfully, you could hear in Arsene Wenger's quotes from yesterday's presser that he knows the job isn't done yet. Arsenal should not take Fenerbahce lightly just because they won the first leg 3-0. There are still 90 minutes of football to be played.

Let's get the job done, then move on to worrying about transfers / the North London derby / our existential woe / etc. Honestly, I don't have that much to say in this preview; it's Arsenal's third match in seven days and I feel like I've said it all in the past week.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Arteta (thigh,) Miyaichi (ribs,) Vermaelen (back,) Diaby (knee)

This is some of the material used to make Laurent
Koscielny's skull.
Somehow, Laurent Koscielny is fit and available for tonight's match at the Emirates, despite nearly having his head kicked off by Pierre Webo in the first leg last Wednesday. Initial rumors indicated that Koscielny might have had a skull fracture, which is clearly impossible, since Koscielny's skull is actually made of a rare titanium alloy that came from outer space and crash landed in central France in 1985.

Other than that, there is no new injury news in the side; no new players missing after the Fulham win and no imminent returns from the already injured. I would expect there to be a very small amount of squad rotation to give a few players a break (as such, I'm not going to try to predict the starting squad,) but with so few first team players available to begin with, there's no way Arsene Wenger can go overboard with changes. The tie is poised at 3-0, not 8-0, so Arsenal cannot get too comfortable.

Fenerbahce Squad News

There is very little information available in terms of squad news for Fenerbache, though I did find out that their volleyball team made a signing. So, you know, that's something.

Current Form

Both Arsenal and Fenerbahce won their respective league matches at the weekend, with Arsenal winning 3-1 at Fulham and Fenerbahce winning 1-0 against Eskisehirspor. Dirk Kuyt had Fenerbache's goal, in the 54th minute, while Mert Gunok saved a penalty six minutes later. Both clubs improved to 8th place in their respective league tables after having lost their opening weekend fixtures in shocking fashion.

Match Facts

Fenerbahce celebrates their only win to date on English
soil, at Old Trafford in 1996.
Fenerbahce need a win by at least three clear goals to advance (and 3-0 would merely force extra time.) While Arsenal lost by two goals at home twice in the Champions League last year (to Schalke and Bayern Munich,) they have only lost by the margin Fenerbahce needs on two occasions in European competition: 3-0 to Inter Milan in 2003/04 (funny how that team wasn't as Invincible in any other competitions) and 5-2 to Spartak Moscow in 1982/83.

Fenerbahce have not scored in either of their two prior trips to North London, losing 2-0 in 1979 and drawing 0-0 in 2008. Fenerbahce's only goals on English soil have come at Old Trafford, winning 1-0 at Manchester United in 1996 (their only win in England) and losing there 6-2 in 2004. In addition to Arsenal, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, and Chelsea have all kept clean sheets at home to Fenerbahce in European competition.

The Referee

Let's hope this doesn't happen again.
The crew of match officials is from Spain; the referee is Carlos Velasco Carballo. Arsenal have seen Velasco Carballo twice over the past two years and have won both matches: 2-1 over Olympiacos at the Emirates in the 2011 group stage and 2-1 at Montpellier in last year's group stage (in which Montpellier opened the scoring from a dubious penalty.) In addition to that, in international competition, Velasco Carballo was the referee who sent off Wojciech Szczesny in the opening match of the 2012 Euros.

This will be his first Fenerbahce match and his second Champions League match involving a Turkish side; incidentally, that was against English competition, as Galatasaray defeated Manchester United 1-0 in Istanbul on November 20 of last year.

Around the Play-Offs
  • Tuesday: Austria Wien v. Dinamo Zagreb; Generali Arena, Vienna
    • Austria Wien leads 2-0.
  • Tuesday: Basel v. Ludogorets Razgrad; St. Jakob-Park, Basel
    • Basel leads 4-2.
  • Tuesday: Legia Warsaw v. Steaua Bucuresti; Pepsi Arena, Warsaw
    • Tied 1-1.
  • Tuesday: PAOK v. Schalke 04; Toumba Stadium, Thessaloniki
    • Tied 1-1.
  • Wednesday: Zenit St. Petersburg v. Pacos de Ferreira; Petrovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg
    • Zenit St. Petersburg leads 4-1.
  • Wednesday: Maribor v. Viktoria Plzen; Ljudski vrt, Maribor
    • Viktoria Plzen leads 3-1.
  • Wednesday: Celtic v. Shakhter Karagandy; Celtic Park, Glasgow
    • Shakhter Karagandy leads 2-0.
  • Wednesday: Real Sociedad v. Lyon; Anoeta, San Sebastian
    • Real Sociedad leads 2-0.
  • Wednesday: AC Milan v. PSV Eindhoven; San Siro, Milan
    • Tied 1-1.

Fulham 1-3 Arsenal: Raining Goals

The result at a rain-lashed Craven Cottage may have been similar to that at the Şükrü Saracoğlu in midweek, but if anything the performance from the side was even better. Fulham were not great, but they did put up a decent fight at times and were a far more significant challenge then Fenerbache were. Still, the Gunners passed them off the park in a virtuoso 75-minute evisceration.

Arsene made one change to the lineup that played so well in Istanbul - Lukas Podolski came in for Jack Wilshere, with Santi Cazorla shifting to the Englishman's central position. Both men gave the manager a ton of happy selection problems to work out as the North London Derby looms at the weekend, the Spaniard especially brilliant in the proverbial "free role".

Fulham boss Martin Jol may have taken the Fener result too much to heart, as the Cottagers set out their stall to all-out defend in the early going. Even Dimitar Berbatov was putting in a shift in his own half of the field at times, but it gave Arsenal time and space to get the passing game going. The Gunners duly obliged, and displayed some wonderful one-touch football, full of precision and confidence. Several times, the defense and goalkeeper escaped danger by calmly playing the ball out of the back in cases where a more desperate clearance might be expected.

Simply put, Arsenal were lethal with the ball at their feet in this match.

One talking point before the match was the injury to new Fulham keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, leaving David Stockdale to deputize. Stockdale did have a handful of Premier League appearances under his belt previously and managed all right, but our guys would still have wanted to challenge him early. That they did, with Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud both testing him in the opening exchanges.

He did fine there, but will be disappointed in his reaction time when we opened the scoring a few minutes later. A long spell of Arsenal possession led to Aaron Ramsey firing one from distance (we've been markedly more willing to do that this season so far). The ball hit Giroud, who was onside despite the appeals from the hosts. The maxim "play to the whistle" has rarely been as true as it was here, as Giroud took advantage of the Fulham players' slackness to go in alone on Stockdale. The keeper should have been far more alert to the danger, and quicker to dive at the Frenchman's feet. Don't get me wrong, it was a fine finish and opportunistic from Giroud, but Stekelenburg probably keeps that out.

Fair play to Fulham, the goal against galvanized them and they started holding onto the ball far better. Were it not for the excellence of Wojciech Szczesny, they would have hit us back with an immediate equalizer. John Arne Riise made one of his characteristic barnstorming runs down the left (which would later give us acres to operate in down that flank, since we're on the topic) and lashed a low shot on goal. Szczesny was down quickly to palm it away, and then was back up in a flash to block Damien Duff's follow-up shot with his trailing leg. The second save was even better than the first, and massively important at that stage of the contest.

The Cottagers were on top though, and fashioned several more chances. A dangerous free kick was repelled by a combination of the wall and Szczesny, then Adel Tarrabt fired wide when others were better placed. The Gunners' back line coped well though, Bacary Sagna playing admirably in what may now be his best position at center-half.

Towards the end of the half, Fulham had overextended themselves a bit, and a devastating counter-attack from Arsenal gave us a 2-0 lead. Riise had again bombed forward with his winger failing to drop back in support, and the fantastic Santi Cazorla made them pay with a tremendous pass into space on the right. Walcott collected on the go, and went for his trademark across-the-keeper finish. Stockdale did well to parry to relative safety, but nobody picked up Podolski lurking at the edge of the area. The Medium Sized German hit an absolute howitzer of a shot through a forest of bodies and into the net before Stockdale could recover. Those goals at the beginning or end of a half are killers, and went a long way towards locking down the three points.

A separate word about Cazorla, before I continue. Even in the wake of an incomplete preseason and the resulting lack of match fitness, he has already approached close to his best form. He was a wizard on the ball, all tricks and flicks and passing lanes that human beings just shouldn't be able to recognize that quickly. Sometimes I have a tendency to focus on the negative overmuch, so let me state for the record that it is an honor and a privilege to watch Santiago Cazorla play professional football for the team I love.

That said, Jol's hairdryer must have been in good working condition as the home side took it to Arsenal in the second half. Szczesny again had to be excellent to keep out a low drive, this time from Taarabt. Berbatov followed that by getting in his own teammate's way in a promising area, and the Gunners made Fulham pay for their wastefulness a few minutes later.

Cazorla was the creator once again, his run down the wing causing Fulham to collapse into their own penalty area. Once again, no one thought to mark Podolski at the edge of the area, and Carzorla got it out to him. Poldi took a touch and then hammered an unstoppable shot low into the far corner. Two goals on two vicious strikes - not a bad day for the German.

The match was over as a contest, and Arsene duly started subbing off some of our impact players. Jack Wilshere and Nacho Monreal got run-outs, and young Yaya Sanogo made his league debut towards the end. The changes and the scoreline contributed to a drop in Arsenal's play, allowing the hosts to bag a consolation goal. Berbatov's turn and shot was too quick for Per Mertesacker, but Szczesny got just enough of a hand on it to keep it out. Sadly, he did not get the clean sheet he deserved, as Carl Jenkinson fell asleep on the back post. Darren Bent was standing just off his shoulder, and got enough separation to get there first and tap into the empty net.

That aside, we can and should be extremely pleased with how the side has performed in the last two games. The post-Villa gloom has receded under a hail of goals and two excellent showings. Get some squad depth in here at defense and midfield and we might just make some noise in this league.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8: Another excellent game. Several strong saves, and did not deserve to concede.

Gibbs 8: Tormented the Fulham defense down the left flank all game long.

Mertesacker 7:  Did what he had to with a minimum of fuss.

Sagna 7: Seems to have taken to the CB position well.

Jenkinson 6: Had some good crosses and did well in general, but was badly at fault for the goal.

Cazorla 9: An absolute joy to watch. He was right in the middle of all of our best attacking moves throughout the match.

Ramsey 7: Not quite as sharp as in the last two games, but did well.

Podolski 8: Made a real statement to the boss about staying in the lineup for the NLD. He won't give you much defensively but he's a predator when half a chance presents itself.

(Sanogo N/A):  Good to see the new man in action. The last few minutes of an emphatic win was the perfect time to put him on. 

Rosicky 7: Did fine, but was in and out of the game. Overshadowed by his teammates.

(Wilshere 6): Never really got into it, was needlessly booked to boot.

Walcott 8: Unlucky to not be on the scoresheet - Theo was a constant danger.

Giroud 8: Took his goal well, and gave us stellar hold-up play.

(Monreal 7): All about getting that match fitness back...

Man of the Match: Cazorla. 

Preview by Numbers: Fulham v. Arsenal

Craven Cottage, London
Saturday, August 24
7:45 a.m. EDT, 12:45 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Howard Webb
    • Assistants: Mike Mullarkey and Darren Cann
    • 4th Official: Michael Oliver
  • This Match, Last Year: Fulham 0 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 35 Arsenal wins, 8 Fulham wins, 10 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-D-W-W-W // L
  • Fulham's League Form: L-L-L-L-W // W
  • Weather: Rain, 20 C / 67 F
Oh. Happiness. I briefly forgot what that was like.
So, after Saturday, Arsenal was in a pretty bad state. It was full-on "worst case scenario" stuff: a bad loss, piling injuries, etc. etc.

Now, after Wednesday, where are things? The 3-0 win over Fenerbahce in Turkey gave Arsenal one (huge) foot in the Champions League group stage. But, a Saturday lunchtime match following a Wednesday night game is about as tough as it gets for a player's stamina, so let's hope Arsenal can keep it together and keep the good vibes flowing.

There's really not much more to say than that; Wednesday's win was a step back from the abyss, but there's plenty of work to be done and it starts in West London.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Arteta (thigh,) Miyaichi (ribs,) Vermaelen (back,) Diaby (knee)
Suspended: Koscielny (one match)

Arsenal's list of wounded grew one larger on Wednesday night, though Laurent Koscielny was already unavailable for this match. The gash on his head was, according to many sources, "horrendous," but we learned via Giroud's Instagram account that he was on the flight back after brief hospitalization, so that's some good news there.

As mentioned, Koscielny is out for the Fulham match anyway, after his red card last weekend. Arsenal's continued depth problems will mean more of Bacary Sagna filling in at center back.

As for the rest of the squad, there is of little note to talk about; nothing has changed, but there is not much depth (surprise!) to allow for any rotation, which is dicey given that, as I said, this is a Saturday lunchtime kick-off following a Wednesday night about 3,000 km (1800 miles) east in Asia (yes, Asia; Fenerbahce is east of the Bosphorus.) I don't know, maybe Lukas Podolski can finally get a start...

Let's hope their legs don't fall off at halftime.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Sagna, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Walcott, Giroud.

Fulham Squad News

Out: Stekelenburg (shoulder,) Richardson (hamstring)
Doubts: Amorebieta (knock,) Kacaniklic (hamstring)

Stekelenburg could miss out through a shoulder injury.
New signing, goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, was forced off after 76 minutes last week with a shoulder injury. I haven't heard confirmation that he is definitely out, but one source indicates he could be out until at least mid-September. If the Dutchman does indeed miss out, David Stockdale will deputize in goal, after Mark Schwarzer left this summer on a free to Chelsea's bench. Additionally, Kieran Richardson left with a hamstring injury that could keep him out for an indeterminate amount of time.

There are doubts over center back Fernando Amorebieta (knock) and midfielder Alexander Kacaniklic (hamstring.)

Fulham have made two recent loan moves in acquiring the services of Darren Bent and Scott Parker.

Current Form

Please stop oscillating wildly. It's dizzying.
Trying to figure out how Arsenal will look tomorrow is kind of like spinning a roulette wheel; at this point early in the season, there's not much form to talk about. Arsenal have played twice and have had two results that lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum from each other: a brutal home loss and a comprehensive road victory. How can you make heads or tails of that? There's no real trend to speak of when the results are that far apart. If you take the average, I'd say this game will be exactly in the middle of the road. Of course, that's not how it works. Really, I'd just prefer if the team stopped oscillating so wildly.

As for Fulham, from April 7 to May 12, the Cottagers were winless in seven, gaining only one point via a draw with Aston Villa. They lost five straight to Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Reading, and Liverpool and fell in the table from 10th to 15th. Of course, they were never really in relegation danger, despite the plunge, and won their final match of the season 3-0 against a Swansea side that had also stopped trying after winning the Capital One Cup. Fulham have technically turned that into two straight victories, after beating Sunderland 1-0 to open the season last week at the Stadium of Light.

Match Facts

Mertesacker's three goals last year all came against
London sides that wear white.
Arsenal took four out of a possible six points from Fulham last year, while Fulham took four out of a possible six points from Arsenal the year before that. This match last year came as recently as four months ago, April 20. Steve Sidwell was sent off in the 12th minute for the Cottagers, but Arsenal found it hard to breakthrough against ten man Fulham. Per Mertesacker had the only goal in the 43rd minute and Olivier Giroud was sent off in injury time after going into a challenge studs up after slipping on the ball. Fulham earlier had an equalizer correctly ruled offside by the best linesman in the league, Sian Massey.

The year prior, Arsenal lost at the Cottage 2-1 just after New Year's. That was a case of a red card going against Arsenal, as Johan Djourou was sent off after two soft yellow cards, Sebastien Squillaci came off the bench to alleviate the damage, and a 1-0 lead became a 2-1 loss in injury time.

Before Arsenal's win in April, Fulham were unbeaten in four matches against the Gunners. Since August of 2008, Fulham have won this fixture twice, drawn once, and lost twice. They've also drawn their last two trips to the Emirates, but we'll talk more about that in January before the reverse fixture.

The Referee

Arseblog and I had a Twitter chat about whether or
not Howard Webb eats cats. Here is an alien dressed as
an American football referee, for reference.
The referee is Melmac-based ALF South Yorkshire-based Howard Webb. Arsenal saw Webb five times last year, won four, and drew the other. The wins included the 2-0 at Anfield last September, the 5-2 over Spurs at the Emirates in November, the 2-1 win at West Brom (in which Per Mertesacker was correctly sent off and then everything got all nervy,) and the match that was never 1-1 at Newcastle in May. The draw was the 2-2 at Swansea in the third round of the FA Cup. Arsenal are unbeaten in their last six with Howard Webb as the referee; the last loss came in the FA Cup to Sunderland in February of 2012.

Fulham only saw Howard Webb once last season, in a 0-0 draw with Norwich in February. The year prior, Fulham drew twice and lost once with Webb in charge: the draws were 1-1 at Norwich and 1-1 with Blackburn, the loss was 2-1 at Everton in the FA Cup.

So, incidentally, each club's most recent loss with Howard Webb as the referee came as they crashed out of the 2012 FA Cup.

Last week, Webb was in the middle for West Ham's 2-0 win over Cardiff City at Upton Park. He showed just one yellow card.

Around the League

  • Saturday: Everton v. West Bromwich Albion; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Hull City v. Norwich City; KC Stadium, Kingston upon Hull
  • Saturday: Newcastle United v. West Ham United; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Saturday: Southampton v. Sunderland; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Saturday: Stoke City v. Crystal Palace; Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Saturday (late): Aston Villa v. Liverpool; Villa Park, Birmingham
  • Sunday (late): Cardiff City v. Manchester City; Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff
  • Sunday (late): Tottenham Hotspur v. Swansea City; White Hart Lane, London
  • Monday (night): Manchester United v. Chelsea; Old Trafford, Manchester
The reverse of these fixtures will be played the weekend of January 18-19.

Fenerbahçe SK 0-3 Arsenal: Flawless Away Performance

So, just as we all expected, a rampant Arsenal stormed the seaside fortress of Istanbul and tonked the would-be tonkers by three clear goals.


I'll own up to the fact that I thought we were in for a hell of a hiding. Had we not had several players recover from injury in the nick of time, it still may have happened. However, they did, and the Gunners' first-team squad had more than enough about them to carry the day.

You will read a lot about how our hosts were awful in all phases of the game, and much of that will be true. What I don't think you'll read as much of is the fact that Arsenal's relentless pressing and solid defensive organization was a huge cause of that.

Even hours later, I sit here gobsmacked at the degree to which the roles were reversed. Despite a crowd that gave everything for their heroes (mostly an incessant shrill whistling that sounded like 20,000 pelicans being strangled by 20,000 howler monkeys, but stlll), Fener were nervous and never got out of the blocks. I don't think they strung two passes together until the 30th minute.

Their defense played well in the first half though, especially in the wake of Arsenal's incisive passing and intelligent off-the-ball play. It was frustrating at times to see such sharp attacks fizzle and die repeatedly in the first half, often down to one poor final ball. The story of our lives, you know? The way Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and especially Aaron Ramsey were playing, you felt the breakthrough had to come sooner or later - unless a soul-destroying sucker punch was lurking in the background.

You never can shake that feeling with this bunch - not even in a match like this. Not until it's well and truly safe.

There were early chances, though. Fenerbahce keeper Volkan Demirel (Turkey's # 1, for the record) made an outstanding sliding clearance to deny one, and was sharp to catch and hold a deflection off of Olivier Giroud's chest on another. Demirel is a talented guy, but our Preview by Numbers man John can back me up on this - I said on Facebook before the match that if the guy committed a ludicrous howler to gift us one, you heard it from me first. More on that later.

It was a largely uneventful half though, with the trifling exception of yet another injury to our defensive corps. How Pierre Webo didn't earn an early bath for this, I'll never know. He and Laurent Koscielny were in close quarters fighting for the ball, and Webo attempted to play the ball with a dangerously-high foot. Instead, he kicked our man square in the face, enough to draw blood and cause him to be substituted. I continue to be astonished how a kick that would end a UFC fight earns the same punishment as taking your shirt off to celebrate a goal. FIFA LOGIC~!

Fener came out in better spirits in the second half and were just starting to get their bearings when Arsenal stunned them with a brilliant goal. Anyone who watched our preseason matches saw how vastly improved Ramsey's range of passing has gotten, and he displayed it again here. The Welshman began the move with a precision diagonal pass that set Walcott off in acres down the right. That drew Demirel out, and the retreating defenders could not deal with Theo's perfect square ball across the six-yard box. The hosts' right-back was closer to Ankara than he was to the unmarked Kieran Gibbs, who easily tapped in at the back post to give us a vital away goal.

Hands up, anyone who had him on your first-goal betting slips.

Theo quickly tested Demirel again, but soon the hosts were away up the other end. A goal here would have gotten the home side right back in it, and so easily could have led to more the way our mental state has been. All of you extremely wrong people who are wrong about stuff who bagged on Szczesny for the Villa game (for the crimes of one PK that was Koscielny's fault and one ramble outside the area that he saved anyway) need to remember this the next time you want to make him the scapegoat. Webo flicked a pass on to the rushing Moussa Sow, who had beaten Per Mertesacker for pace. Out came Szczesny in a flash (I seem to remember highlighting this skill of his in our season preview) and sacrificed his body to keep it out. You could see the stud marks on his neck for the whole rest of the game - seriously, it looked like he was mauled by a rabid vampire badger.

Arsenal recovered though, Wilshere forcing another strong save from the Turkish keeper. However, my Facebook portent came true a minute later. Ramsey was both architect and finisher, as he capped a fine run with a finely-lashed shot into the low corner. Demirel was there and got a hand on it, but he could only slow it down on its way in. It's true that the shot had pace on it, but that was absolutely a case of a keeper whose concentration let him down, who lost the flight of the ball somewhere along the way. As I said, Demirel is a fine keeper who will, at times, destroy his team with an ill-timed case of the Almunias.

Walcott could have sunk Fener further into misery when Demirel's atrocious goal kick went right to him. However, he ran himself into too acute of an angle to test the keeper, and could only fire over the bar. That chance was waste, but he made up for it by winning a penalty soon after. His determined run into the area led to Michal Kadlec hauling him down in utterly brain-dead fashion. It has to be said, Walcott was excellent in the second half after a borderline-appalling first stanza. Anyway, Giroud stepped up to take the spot kick, and sent Demirel the wrong way.

Three away goals. Football, bloody hell.

There was still time for the hosts to at least give themselves the goal that would give them the faint hope of a 2-0 away win, but Szczesny again imposed himself on the game when it mattered. Kadlec evaded his marker in the penalty area and hammered a shot on goal, but Szczesny was there to deny him. Minutes later, the substitute Emmanuel Emenike hit an even harder-shot from even closer in, but the Pole got two strong hands on it to guide it to safety. That was an absolute wonder save. Love that kid.

The remaining time played out with no further hitches, leaving Arsenal three away goals to the good in a tie that should now be over. Again, this was every inch as much of a great performance from our guys as it was a horrendous one from the hosts. The one thing Arsene has been right about in his recent series of quotes is that our first XI is a strong one. On their day, they can beat anyone in the world - just ask the world-conquering Bayern Munich. However, as much of a fillip as this result can and will be, the fact of the matter is that results like this depend on that XI being fit and available for selection. It's a long season, and that won't always be the case.

Please, Arsene. Give us the squad depth to provide these brave Gunners with some reinforcements. They can't do it alone.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 8: Could have been MOTM on another day. Several brilliant saves and he was brave in the face of the onrushing Sow.

Gibbs 8: Excellent timing on his run to the back post for the goal, and was a constant threat down the left otherwise.

Koscielny 7: Had some timely clearances before being Anderson Silva'd in the face.

(Jenkinson 7): Did well when called upon, slotted right in with no fuss.

Mertesacker 6: Not the best of games for the BFG. He got torched a few times and seemed to be to go missing a bit on the plays where Szczesny saved us.

Sagna 7: This emergency center-half lark may end up being his best position at this point.

Wilshere 8: Strong in all aspects of the game - tackled well, excellent passing and might have scored himself on another day.

Ramsey 9: Arguably his finest performance in an Arsenal shirt. His on-field vision and through-balls resembled Cazorla on a good day, and his willingness to test Demirel gave us a priceless second goal.

Cazorla 8: He's such a good player that sometimes his genius seems banal. Kept the offense ticking with his usual array of perfect passes.

Rosicky 8: Much, much improved performance from the Villa game. He is much more effective when his is the pass that is two or three before the final one or before the shot, as was the case here. His energy was infectious as well.

Walcott 8: Ordinary in the first half, he rebounded to cause Fener endless torment down the right in the second half. Fabulous assist on the first goal and did well to win the penalty.

(Monreal N/A):  Good to see him back.

Giroud 8: Coolly slotted home the penalty to put the tie out of reach, but more importantly his hold-up play was vastly better than it was against Villa.

(Podolski N/A): Quick cameo at the end - the guys on the field played too well to warrant an earlier sub.

Man of the Match:  Aaron Ramsey

Preview by Numbers: Fenerbahce v. Arsenal, Champions League Play-off, First Leg

Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, Istanbul
Wednesday, August 21
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials from Italy
    • Referee: Gianluca Rocchi
    • Assistants: Elenito Di Liberatore and Gianluca Cariolato
    • 4th Official: Alessandro Giallatini
    • Additional Assistants: Mauro Bergonzi and Andrea Gervasoni
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 2 Arsenal wins, 2 draws
  • Arsenal's European Form: L-D-W-L-L-W
  • Fenerbahce's European Form: W-D-W-L // D-W
  • Weather: Clear but Windy, 25 C / 77 F
There's an old Chinese curse (note: no Chinese source has ever actually been found) that goes "may you live in interesting times." While it seems rather kind and poetic at first, the intended meaning of "interesting times" is a period of chaos, drama, and tension.

There is no doubt about it: Arsenal supporters are certainly living in "interesting times" right now. Reaction to the season opening 3-1 loss to Aston Villa has been swift and overwhelmingly negative. There are those who blame referee Anthony Taylor for exacerbating an already bad situation. There are plenty screaming for Arsene Wenger's or Ivan Gazidis's head (or both.) There's just a lot of bad juju out there, ya know?

Honestly, I don't know what more I can add to the thousands of words already penned on the Interwebz about the subject. As this is a preview for tonight's match, all I can do is look forward. No more talk about what happened before, no more talk about transfers; it's irrelevant to the match now.

When you look at the 18 players picked to travel to Turkey, it certainly looks to me like a group that is capable of beating Fenerbahce over two legs. But "capable" is not enough; the squad was "capable" of beating Aston Villa, too.

180 minutes stand between Arsenal and the group stage. Let's hope they're less interesting times than the past week has been.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Oxlade-Chamberlain (knee,) Arteta (thigh,) Miyaichi (ribs,) Vermaelen (back,) Diaby (knee)

Despite a nasty gash sustained on Saturday, Kieran Gibbs
is available for the trip. Hooray for stitches!
In a bit of stunning news, a number of the players who left Saturday's game with injuries or were said to have knocks afterward have passed fit for this trip. That includes Kieran Gibbs (ridiculous head gash,) Aaron Ramsey (ankle), Tomas Rosicky (something? everything?,) and Bacary Sagna (bent neck.) Only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is out at least six weeks with knee ligament damage, is a casualty from Saturday. Even Nacho Monreal (back) is returning sooner than expected, though I would doubt he's up to match fitness to start.

Laurent Koscielny, banned for Saturday's trip to Fulham, is available in European competition, as is Santi Cazorla, regardless of what some publications will tell you about yellow card accumulation carrying over to the following year (in actuality, it does not.)

All in all, that means the 18-man traveling squad is a bit stronger than we all feared it could have been at the start of the week, though that bench does look weak.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla, Podolski, Walcott, Giroud. Subs from: Fabianski, Jenkinson, Monreal, Frimpong, Rosicky, Gnabry, Sanogo.

Fenerbache Squad News

Out: Ersu (knee)
Doubt: Gonul (surgery recovery)

Gokhan Gonul could return after an end of season operation in May to repair injuries to his left shoulder and left crotch? What? That can't be right... Gonul also suffered a pretty brutal kick to the face during last year's Europa League semi-final against Benfica and was stretchered off, though he played two Turkish league matches after. Erten Ersu is the only sure absentee, out with a knee injury.

Fenerbahce did make some moves in this off-season, because they, unlike Arsenal, are aware that you're allowed to buy players in the summer. They bought Bruno Alves from Zenit, Michal Kadlec from Bayer Leverkusen, Alper Potuk from under Galatasaray's nose, and Emmanuel Emenike for 13 million Euros from Spartak Moscow.

Current Form

Fenerbahce (in white) also lost at the weekend when they
probably should not have.
Do I really need to talk about Arsenal's form? Their form for this season currently exists solely as a gigantic bold L. So, instead, I'll talk about their form in Europe. As you probably know, the last time Arsenal missed out on the group stage of the Champions League was 1997/98, an astounding run of 15 consecutive seasons. During that time, Arsenal were required to advance via the play-off round five times, which they have done against the likes of Dinamo Zagreb (2006,) Sparta Prague (2007,) Twente (2008,) Celtic (2009,) and Udinese (2011.)

As for Fenerbahce, they opened their Turkish league campaign with a loss this weekend, too. Their loss came on the road, however, by a 3-2 scoreline, against Konyaspor. Konyaspor, by the way, was just promoted from the second division for this season, so this loss is almost as bad as Arsenal's, if anything could be as bad as that was. Fenerbahce advanced to this round after beating Salzburg 4-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round. Then, there's the whole match fixing scandal thing, but the tie will be decided before a decision is made, so it's best (for the sake of previews) to pretend it's not a thing.

Match Facts

Aaron Ramsey scored his first career goal in Istanbul
in 2008.
Arsenal and Fenerbahce have met in four previous matches, first in the 1979/80 Cup Winners' Cup and next in the 2008 group stage of the Champions League. Arsenal won the first leg or match on both occasions while drawing the second match 0-0.

In round one of the 1979/80 Cup Winners' Cup, the two sides met at Highbury in the first leg on September 19, 1979. Alan Sunderland and Willie Young scored for Arsenal in a 2-0 victory before the sides played out a 0-0 draw in Istanbul. Arsenal went on to the final of the tournament that year before losing to Valencia on penalties just four days after losing the FA Cup Final to second tier West Ham.

The sides met again in the group stage of the 2008/09 Champions League. Arsenal won the first match in Istanbul by a 5-2 scoreline: Emmanuel Adebayor and Theo Walcott put Arsenal up 2-0 within 11 minutes before a Mikael Silvestre own goal brought it back to 2-1 in the 19th. Abou Diaby and Alex Song added goals to make it 4-1 before Daniel Gulza pulled another back in the 78th. 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey completed the scoring in the 90th. That goal, Ramsey's first of his career, made him the fifth youngest scorer in Champions League history at the time.

The only other time Arsenal have played a Turkish side in European competition, it was Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup Final and I don't want to talk about it. Meanwhile, Fenerbahce have a record of four wins, eight losses, and three draws against English opponents.

The Referee

"I got this," Rocchi says to Anthony Taylor.
The match officials are from Italy; the referee is Gianluca Rocchi. Arsenal have seen Rocchi once before, in the group stage in September of 2011, when they drew 1-1 at Borussia Dortmund. Fenerbache have seen Rocchi once as well; they won that match, 1-0 over Viktoria Plzen, in last year's Europa League Round of 16.

Rocchi has taken charge of 10 UEFA Champions League matches in his career, including the aforementioned Arsenal draw with Dortmund. One of the other nine was even an English side vs. Turkish side match, as Manchester United beat Bursaspor 1-0 at Old Trafford in the 2010 group stage. More recently in matches involving either of the two countries involved here, Rocchi worked a Chelsea match (a 3-0 win over Valencia in 2011) and a Manchester City match (a 1-1 draw with Real Madrid last year.)

Rocchi took charge of a number of matches at the 2012 Olympics, including a group stage match between Brazil and Egypt and the semi-final between Mexico and Japan.

Around the Champions League Play-Offs
  • Tuesday: Pacos de Ferreira 1 - 4 Zenit St. Petersburg
  • Tuesday: Lyon 0 - 2 Real Sociedad
  • Tuesday: Viktoria Plzen 3 - 1 Maribor
  • Tuesday: PSV Eindhoven 1 - 1 AC Milan
  • Tuesday: Shakhter Karagandy 2 - 0 Celtic
  • Wednesday: Dinamo Zagreb v. Austria Wien; Stadion Maksimir, Zagreb
  • Wednesday: Schalke 04 v. PAOK; Veltins-Arena, Gelsenkirchen
  • Wednesday: Ludogorets Razgrad v. Basel; Vasil Levski National Stadium, Sofia
  • Wednesday: Steaua Bucuresti v. Legia Warsaw; Arena Nationala, Bucharest

Arsenal 1-3: Two Arms and One Leg Tied Behind Our Backs

This is going to be short, because frankly by this point you've certainly already ready several match reports and the resulting news coverage. I did want to eventually get this written though because there is just as much to talk about outside of the match as there was during it.

How different things looked in the 6th minute though, with Brad Guzan picking the ball out of his net in the face of a vintage Arsenal counter-attack. The speed with which it was played up to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who in turn played it in to the path of a surging Olivier Giroud run was breathtaking. Giroud, for his part, still had the hard work to do and timed his run in between the Villa center-halves perfectly. The cameras caught Guzan bollicking his defenders, but I'm not sure there was much that any team could have done to stop that play - it was perfectly timed and executed.

It would be slightly unfair to chalk up the rest of the afternoon on us switching off - on the balance of it most of the Arsenal players were not that bad on the day, and you also have to credit Villa for a determined rearguard performance.

Then, there was the referee, Anthony Taylor. It's unfortunate that he was so astonishingly incompetent on the day, because it is too easy to blame him for what unfolded (more on that in a second). But, my god, the second penalty and Laurent Koscielny's second yellow were crucial moments that he got unbelievably wrong. Beyond that, his application of the advantage rule was wildly inconsistent, and he let Villa kick us up in the air repeatedly with the same kind of fouls that got us shiny pieces of colorful cardboard.

I would literally pay $100 to see the referee assessor's match report after that horror show. It would be instructive to see just how far the rot has set in, to see how guys like Taylor and Phil Dowd and Mike Dean keep getting games at the highest level.

That aside, the real root cause of this defeat can be seen in the emaciated state of our squad. While I have largely reached the resignation/acceptance stage of our decline as a club, the one thing that still makes me want to put my fist through a wall is when the manager goes on about how hard it is to find players better than what he has.

I lamented on a message forum yesterday that the art of the follow-up question seems to be dead in journalism, cowardly abandoned to ensure continued access. Just once, when Arsene says how hard it is to find "super super top quality", I'd love to see a journo start yelling out names - Higuain! Bender! Gustavo! All are players who would moonwalk into the first team. Or, perhaps a follow-up question asking why that is relevant when there is so little squad depth on his team, one which has a long history of injury problems and several players with a penchant for red cards?

There is a kernel of a point in the manager's assertion that the first XI-plus-a-bit is indeed a strong one. We have had the core of a title contender for years, though the last few years have been a clinical study in how a core alone is not sufficient.

I simply do not understand how a sane, reasonable person can look at a scenario where we finish a game with Lukas Podolski at LB, Aaron Ramsey at CB and Santi Cazorla on the field practically just off a plane from Ecuador and not see that something is horrifically amiss. Pick that team in Football Manager and even Colchester United would have a decent chance of turning you over.

Beyond that, even before the injuries, this team had few ready-made replacements to account for poor individual performances in a given game. Theo Walcott in particular was appalling, a total apparition in the kind of game where we need him the most. Some will say that Tomas Rosicky did well given one brilliant slalom through the Villa defense, but over the 90 minutes he was putrid as well (and frankly, you HAVE to score at the end of that run - Guzan did well to save, but a top player buries that...and I say that as someone who loves the hell out of Tommy).

Koscielny was worse than them put together, though. He's always been a feast-or-famine player for us, and this was one of the poorest showings he's given us. He impersonated a turnstile to let the Villa player through for what became the first penalty, and while the red card was bullshit he still should have been far more careful knowing that Mr. Magoo was gagging to send off one of ours. I will say he was unlucky on the second penalty though. He clearly got the ball with a brilliant tackle, but Taylor's poor positioning made it look like a foul.

One guy who does not remotely deserve the stick he's gotten in the last 24 hours is Wojciech Szczesny. He arguably was a second late off his line for the first, but again you don't expect a class defender like Koscielny to shepherd the player in like a bullfighter executing a flawless Veronica. He saved the resulting penalty, and 9 times out of 10 that goes out the side to safety - for it to loop right back to Christian Benteke was ridiculously bad luck. The second was another penalty kick, the third was a 1-v-1 for half the length of the field.

Please, enlighten me: What was Szczesny supposed to do on any of those, again? Not every 3 or 4-goal conceded performance has anything to do with the evidenced by the guy you're all clamoring to buy shipping four goals to the USA in midweek. You know, just saying.

And honestly, don't point to his ramble outside the area as evidence that he is Massimo Taibbi's less-talented cousin. Goalkeeping Psychology 101: A guy like him who is desperate to win and fighting for his first-team place will at times take the law into his own hands if the guys in front of him are continually failing to protect him adequately. It's a red mist sort of thing - I know, it's happened to me before. And, at the end of the day, he kept it out on that play...what more can you ask for?

The brutal truth is this: Arsene Wenger and Arsene Wenger alone is responsible for this defeat. He is responsible for the extreme likelihood that an excellent Fenerbahce side gives us a good thrashing in midweek, sending us crashing out of the Champions League. He is responsible for creating a squad where two or three injuries will have us sending children out to bear a responsibility that is absurdly unfair for them to shoulder. He is responsible for overseeing the decline of everything he worked so hard to build up. He is the one who is turning us into Liverpool v 2.0, a path I warned that we were on years ago.

I co-sign everything Arseblogger said this morning - he has given us the best football and the best times of our Arsenal lives, and I really and truly do not want to hate him.

That's where I am today, though. In truth, that's where I've been for a while.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7 - Didn't do much wrong, if you're being fair about it.

Gibbs 7 - Was fine until the injury.

(Jenkinson 7) - The least of our problems, did admirably in emergency relief duty.

Koscielny 4 - At fault for the first two goals, needlessly got sent off as well. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...

Mertesacker 6 - He wasn't helped by his partner's poor performance, but I felt he could have done more as well.

Sagna 6 - Recovered from a brutal first half (giveaways and poor crosses everywhere, terrible positioning and got burned several times by their wingers) to give us a decent second period. We can only hope he's OK after that horrific All Japan Pro Wrestling-style landing.

Ramsey 7 - Filled in all over the pitch due to injuries and our ludicrous lack of depth. Did what he could.

Wilshere 6 - Never really made his mark on proceedings. He was kicked out of the game as per usual, but he's got to step it up more in times like this.

Oxlade-Chamberlain 7 - Fantastic assist in likely his only appearance for the club this season - there is talk that he's done his cruciate ligament. Gutted for the kid, he was poised to break out this year.

(Cazorla 5) - It's an unfair rating in some respects given that he never should have been asked to play. However, an objective assessment of what he did do out on the pitch is such that I have to give it.

Rosicky 5 - Not everyone will agree, but one nice run does not a good performance make. He blew an easy chance for the equalizer, and beyond that his passing was atrocious. I think he may be more useful to us as an impact sub, but squad depth etc and so on.

Walcott 5 - Went missing. End of.

Giroud 7 - Did wonderfully well to score the goal, but his hold-up play was shocking at times. Too many attacking moves died because he failed to trap a simple ball.

Man of the Match:  Christian Benteke  (This is a change for this year, folks. An Arsenal player only gets the MOTM if we deserve to have one now.)

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Aston Villa

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, August 17
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Anthony Taylor
    • Assistants: Harry Lennard and Mick McDonough
    • 4th Official: Andy D'Urso
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 2 - 1 Aston Villa
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 76 Arsenal wins, 65 Aston Villa wins, 45 draws
  • Arsenal's End of Season Form: D-W-D-W-W-W
  • Aston Villa's End of Season Form: D-L-W-W-L-D
  • Weather: Mostly Cloudy with Drizzle Late, 20 C / 67 F
I made this last August; it still applies.
I have no idea what to say here; I really don't. This summer has been confusing to the utmost degree. Arsenal opened the window by informing the world that they had all of the money in the universe and were prepared to make a big splash. Then, they didn't do that.

Transfer saga after transfer saga went by; they had personal terms agreed with Gonzalo Higuain, but when the Emirates Cup rolled around, he was on the pitch for the other team. They entered a highly controversial and highly public saga involving known racist biter Luis Suarez, and even that hasn't panned out. Rumors come and rumors go, but one fact remains: Arsenal have spent zero money this summer.

On the face of things, you can point to the fact that last year's core remains intact (something you could not say about each of the previous two summers) and this is a squad that went 11 games unbeaten across all competitions to close out last year. Arsenal finally got rid of the deadwood on their wage bill, which is also good news. However, without new acquisitions and suddenly a host of injury worries, it suddenly looks like Arsenal have about eight players in the squad, total. Meanwhile, they play matches Saturday, Wednesday night, Saturday lunchtime, Tuesday night, and Sunday.

Make no mistake, this is a critical three week period, and the Gunners come into it unsteady at best. But, you can only play games 90 minutes at a time, and that means focusing on Aston Villa tomorrow. Villa had a rough season last year, but come into this year buoyed by their escape from relegation, with another year of experience tacked onto their exceedingly young roster. If Arsenal had done big business this summer, you'd think this would be an easy three points. The reality, however, is a little more sobering.

That being said, 10:00 a.m. Eastern time tomorrow, 3:00 p.m. in London, is not the time to bitch and moan about what happened this summer. It's the time to cheer on the boys in red and white. Leave the bitching for after the final whistle, when hopefully there won't be that much to bitch about.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Arteta (thigh,) Monreal (back,) Miyaichi (ribs,) Vermaelen (back,) Diaby (knee)
Doubts: Sagna (ankle,) Walcott (knee,) Cazorla (jet lag, probably,) Sanogo (hamstring,) Ramsey (ankle)

Arsenal's newest prospect not only has
the same injury woes as everyone else,
but he also spends way too much time
at the tanning salon. And he has no face!
Well, will you look at that? Is there anyone available anymore? I mean, I played right back for my junior varsity team (and got torn to shreds at said position,) so count me available for selection.

So, where to begin? Bacary Sagna has picked up an ankle problem on international duty, calling his availability into doubt. With the likes of Sebastien Squillaci and Andre Santos out, Ignasi Miquel on loan, and Johan Djourou on loan with the option to buy, all coupled with injuries to Thomas Vermaelen (who likely won't be match fit until October) and Nacho Monreal (who has not played at all since the Confederations Cup,) it appears Arsenal will go into Saturday with exactly zero defensive options on the bench. Challenge accepted?

Meanwhile, Mikel Arteta picked up a thigh problem in training, because we're not allowed to have nice things. The scan was not good and the Spaniard could miss up to six weeks. So, you know, that's a disaster. Elsewhere in the midfield, Aaron Ramsey pulled out of the Wales squad this week with an ankle problem; it sounded like that was mostly precaution. Santi Cazorla played in Ecuador and will very likely be jet lagged, though to be fair, he started the first match of last season against Sunderland under similar circumstances. Without the Spaniards, you're looking at a midfield trio of Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Britain!!

Speaking of Britain, Theo Walcott played 75 minutes for England against Scotland on Wednesday, scored a goal, and left with swelling in his knee, so even he's a doubt! It's a good thing Arsenal bought (read: signed on a free) Yaya Sanogo... oh wait... even HE'S a doubt with a hamstring injury. At this point, I would like to remind you that I played right wing in the seventh grade, so again, count me available.

Maybe it's better the injury crisis hit now than in September when the window (ha!) is closed.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Walcott, Giroud.

Aston Villa Squad News

Out: N'Zogbia (Achilles), Herd (calf)

Not anymore, Darren Bent! Source: Soccer Lens.
Aston Villa survived last season in the Premier League by the skin of their teeth (see the "Last Season" section below.) Their biggest move of the summer, honestly, was not a move at all, but rather the new contract for Christian Benteke. Benteke scored 40% of Villa's Premier League goals last season.

In terms of their transfer window merry-go-round, Richard Dunne, Eric Lichaj, and Andy Marshall went to Championship sides after being released, Stiliyan Petrov retired, and Jean Makoun was sold to Rennes for an undisclosed fee. Darren Bent, meanwhile, has had a medical at Fulham, so Arsenal won't have to worry about him until... a week from now.

On the arrivals side, Villa bought Aleksandar Tonev from Lech Poznan, Jores Okore from Nordsjaelland, Leandro Bacuna from Groningen, Nicklas Helenius from Aalborg, and Antonio Luna from Sevilla. They also picked up 20 year old goalkeeper Jed Steer from Norwich on a free.

As far as I can tell (injury news is always scattered at the beginning of the year, unless you're Arsenal and half your team is doubtful,) Chris Herd and Charles N'Zogbia are both out, the former limping out of a friendly in July and the latter needing Achilles surgery in June.

Last Season

Arsenal celebrates their fourth place trophy at Newcastle
last year, where it was not 1-1.
Well, what is there to say about last season? I won't go into too much detail; you likely know most of it already. Consider this a refresher course. Things started moderately well, despite some last minute exits in August who shall remain nameless. A handful of losses through October raised some question marks. A three match winless streak including Michu's 2-0 win at the Emirates saw Arsenal drop as far as 10th. The Gunners rebounded to win four straight, then promptly forgot how to play again in January. But, after losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, Arsenal lost just once in their remaining 16 league matches (but fell out of the other competitions, often in dramatically ridiculous ways) to pip rival Tottenham Hotspur for fourth place and the right to play... ughhhh... Fenerbahce in the Champions League play-off.

Aston Villa, on the other hand, were never higher than 11th place in the table last season (that happened with a win on September 15.) That specific win, over Swansea, was their only win in their first nine league matches. Things picked up in late November to December, starting with their 0-0 draw with Arsenal, in which the Villans went unbeaten in five. Ah, but then they visited Stamford Bridge and lost 8-0, kicking off an eight match winless run that saw them drop to 19th. A win against West Ham offered brief respite before losses to Arsenal and Manchester City. At that point, the Villans sat in 18th place on March 4 with 10 games to play; they proceeded to win five and draw two of those, and eventually finished in 15th, five points clear of relegation. In the domestic cups, Villa were bounced by Millwall in the FA Cup's fourth round (remember, Millwall went to Wembley?) and by Bradford City in the League Cup (one round after the Bantams shamed Arsenal.)

Match Facts

Santi Cazorla suspends himself in midair to celebrate a goal
in this fixture last year.
Arsenal took four out of a possible six points from the Villans last year. The first meeting, in late November at Villa Park, was played in horrible rainy conditions; neither side could break the deadlock in the pitch-turned-bog and my dreams are still haunted by Olivier Giroud being removed for Francis Coquelin late in the 0-0 draw. The Gunners won the reverse fixture at the Emirates 2-1 in late February; Santi Cazorla opened the scoring in the sixth minute, Andreas Weimann equalized in the 68th, and Cazorla picked up the late winner in the 85th.

Arsenal won three meetings with Villa the year prior: 2-1 in Birmingham, 3-2 in the FA Cup (coming back from 2-0 down at halftime,) and 3-0 at the Emirates. Arsenal have only lost two of their last 29 league meetings with Aston Villa, though one of those came moderately recently, in May of 2011.

In season opening matches, Arsenal are unbeaten in 12, dating back to a 1-0 loss at Sunderland in 2000. Since then, the Gunners have won eight and drawn four of their curtain raisers, though they have drawn their last three to the likes of Sunderland, Newcastle, and Liverpool. You can't really find similar trends with Villa; they lost last year's opener 1-0 to West Ham, drew Fulham 0-0 the year before that, and beat West Ham 3-0 the year before that. In their last seven league openers, the Villans have won two, drawn two, and lost three.

The Referee

Taylor was involved in the testing of goal line technology
at the Emirates earlier this month, meaning I expect several
dubious goals in this match.
The referee is Cheshire-based Anthony Taylor. Arsenal saw Taylor three times last season and won all three: 1-0 over QPR in October (in which he sent off Stephane Mbia late in the match, just before Mikel Arteta's winner,) 5-2 over Reading at the Madejski (in which Santi Cazorla had a hat trick,) and 1-0 over Sunderland (in which Carl Jenkinson was rightly sent off for... exuberance, Aaron Ramsey played right back, and I had eleven consecutive heart attacks.)

For Villa last season, Taylor worked two matches. He was in the middle of a 1-1 draw at West Brom (Darren Bent had a late equalizer for the Villans) and a 3-0 loss at Manchester United the day United clinched the title.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Liverpool v. Stoke City; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Saturday: Norwich City v. Everton; Carrow Road, Norwich
  • Saturday: Sunderland v. Fulham; Stadium of Light, Sunderland
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Southampton; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Cardiff City; Boleyn Ground, London
  • Saturday (late): Swansea City v. Manchester United; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Sunday (early): Crystal Palace v. Tottenham Hotspur; Selhurst Park, London
  • Sunday (late): Chelsea v. Hull City; Stamford Bridge, London
  • Monday (night): Manchester City v. Newcastle United; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
The reverse of these fixtures will be played the weekend of January 11-12.