Sunderland 1-4 Arsenal: A Test of Character

There have been so many games like this over the last, hell, 10 seasons or so. So many games where we dominate and dominate and dominate, one thing doesn't go our way, and we'd go to pieces. So many games where awful cloggers like Sunderland would get one or three points that they didn't remotely deserve, one bad bounce or bad refereeing decision causing our guys to gleefully rush to the self-destruct button.

This was not one of those games, this Arsenal team is not like those others, and I'm slowly (steady on now, Sean...) starting to believe that this isn't one of those seasons.

The cast of characters was slightly different today, which was a bit jarring given how settled our side has been in the league so far in this campaign. Injury forced Nacho Monreal and Theo Walcott out of the team, so in stepped Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain respectively. There was no change in our play though, as we easily maintained possession and looked threatening every time one of our guys bore down on Jordan Pickford's goal.

What I don't understand is why Sunderland didn't sit deep and defend in numbers, like most other clubs of their stature would normally do. Actually, come to think of it, I reckon that David Moyes knows his defenders by now, and opted for a much riskier high defensive line rather than wait for Papy Djilobodji (eight million pounds!) to pratfall all over himself. As it was, he did anyway, but we'll get to that in a bit.

That's the thing - Sunderland did try and play football, and for long stretches they played about as well as they could. People are going to look at this result - and the inevitable string of others just like it, and chat a bunch of shit about how Moyes has lost it, this that and the other. The simple truth is that this is a poor mishmash of a squad, put together by a string of failed managers. I believe that much like Newcastle United and Aston Villa before them, these guys are going to have to die to be reborn. Relegation will be a blessing.

Anyway, the only surprise about the opening goal was that it took 20 minutes to arrive. We continually tore apart their high line again and again, but often misplayed the final ball or had some poor touches in the penalty area. On this occasion, the excellent Oxlade-Chamberlain torched his man down the sideline, and whipped in a cross. Alexis Sanchez, who had spent most of the game to that point whining to the referee about something or another leapt like a salmon over the much taller Lamine Kone and headed the ball into the far corner. A real center-forward's goal, that. Olivier Giroud would have been proud of that one...wait, what's that?


That aside, it wouldn't quite be correct to say that Arsenal completely hung back after the goal went in, but they were missing a bit of killer instinct from that point on. Defensively, there was no let-up as they harried their opponents mercilessly. There was one bit in particular where the Ox motored 30, 40 yards down the sideline to break up one attack, and another where Gibbs made a fabulous interception at full stretch. We were playing well, but just not all-in really as the whistle went for halftime. The only chance in the interim was a Mesut Ozil chip that Pickford, in fairness, did spectacularly well to paw away to safety.

The home side were much better in the opening minutes of the second half, though they didn't do much to threaten Petr Cech. The Gunners still looked the more likely to score off the counter than anything else, as the clock made its way past the hour mark. Then, two big decisions threatened a complete polarity shift for the whole match. Alexis scampered into the penalty area, only for Kone to put a hand on his shoulder. Alexis went down, but no call came from Martin Atkinson. Up the other end, Shkrodan Mustafi's awful mistake allowed Duncan Watmore to go in alone on goal, only to be cleaned out by Cech. Atkinson immediately blew for the penalty, our old nemesis Jermain Defoe stepped up, 1-1.

Now, don't get me wrong. While Sanchez went down easy, it WAS a penalty. While theirs was a nailed-on peno as well, you'd be right to wonder why one was called and the other wasn't. All I can surmise, as the grizzled veteran of five high school 8-a-side matches refereed, is that Atkinson felt that Sanchez went down too easy too many times, barked at him too much for the same, and that the contact was sort of light. Or, maybe someone blocked his vision - it does happen, as much as you try for it not to. I don't know. Either way, the end result was that Sunderland were back in a game that should have been out of sight by this point, the home fans were roaring them on, and we were now in well-traveled territory down the path of perdition to two (or three) points squandered.

Oh, hello Ollie. Man, we sure missed you.

The big Frenchman came on for the anonymous Alex Iwobi right on the strike of 70 minutes, and by the 71st, Pickford was fishing the ball out of his net. Talk about rapid delivery. The play started with Alexis, who helped it on to the overlapping Gibbs. Gibbs, who by the way is a goddamn model professional and who had a storming game, crossed the ball in perfectly. Giroud got a yard on the utterly static Djilobodji, and somehow contorted himself to the side to sweetly volley past the keeper.

All of you who reckon that the man isn't top, top class can kindly shut your word-holes now.

That out of the way, I spent a lot of time earlier on talking about how we'd go to pieces in times like this, years ago. But, if you want to see a masterclass in the art, I mean, the real Picasso/Mozart/Frank Lloyd Wright stuff, go back and have another look at the last 20 minutes of this game. It's bad enough that they let Giroud have that much room for that volley right when they should have been at their highest point mentally - they then proceeded to let in two more in slapstick fashion, and it could have been more had we really cared to drive the shiv in deeper.

A minute or two after Ozil had just missed getting on the end of a nice cutback from Gibbs, we won a free kick in a dangerous central area when Adnan Januzaj (still in the league - who knew?) booted Francis Coquelin directly in the mush. Ozil bounced his kick off the wall, but on the ensuing corner, that man Giroud popped up again. Djilobodji looked like he had the old cement shoes as Ollie surged past him and hit a gorgeous arcing header over Pickford and in. It's hard to describe just how good that was - two inches lower and the keeper gets that.

Arsenal could have virtually named the final score from that point on, but I have to take a second to appreciate the Keystone Kops quality of the fourth goal. The Sunderland defense...I mean, my god. I have a Bachelor's in English and words still fail me. Gibbs found a yard in the penalty area and rattled the post with his shot, and it found its way to the substitute Aaron Ramsey (welcome back!) as the defenders ran around in the headless chicken style. He couldn't turn it in, so it was left to Alexis to humiliate Pickford by sending him one way, then shrugging the ball in the opposite direction, much like you'd flick something off of your shoe. Magic.

Job well and truly done, then, in a scenario where it wasn't always so easy. Sunderland, you can only expect, can look forward to their trips to Brentford and Cardiff next season. As for us? No big deal in the next two weeks, just minor games against Tottenham and Manchester United. Yawn.

What I worry about, of course, is an overreaction if we do drop a point or two in those ones. This is still an excellent squad, off to a great start, and still very much in the thick of things at the top end of the table. I do think we'll sort out both of them, to be honest, but if we don't let's not lose our heads here. It's a long season and it's looking more and more like we're equipped - FINALLY - to do some serious damage.

Man of the Match: There are serious arguments for both Alexis and Gibbo, hell, Ox too. But, Olivier Giroud changed the game when he came on. End of. 

Preview by Numbers: Sunderland v. Arsenal

Stadium of Light, Sunderland
Saturday, October 29
7:30 a.m. EDT, 12:30 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Martin Atkinson
    • Assistants: Stephen Child and Stuart Burt
    • 4th Official: Craig Pawson
  • This Match, Last Year: Sunderland 0 - 0 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 60 Arsenal wins, 50 Sunderland wins, 41 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-D
  • Sunderland's League Form: L-L-L-D-L-L
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 56 °F / 13 °C
Why were Reading in their highlighter change kits?
Does blue clash with red now? Is it the white sleeves?
If it is, that's stupid.
The winning streak might have been snapped a week ago, but Arsenal will be happy to have gone back to winning ways midweek, especially since their 2-0 League Cup win over second division Reading did not require advancing out of second gear at any point. Arsenal will host Southampton in the fifth round in late November; it's their first time reaching this stage since 2012 and with Spurs, Chelsea, and City knocked out this week, this cup looks to be there if Arsène Wenger wants it.

But, we'll worry about that in a month. For now, it's back to the league. Through a quirk in cup scheduling, Arsenal have played four straight and six of their last seven at the Emirates. Now, they'll head up to the Northeast to face last place Sunderland, themselves knocked out of the League Cup this week by Southampton.

Had Arsenal beaten Middlesbrough last weekend, there's a good chance this would have been a trap game; they've got a trip to Bulgaria on Wednesday and will host Tottenham at the Emirates next Sunday. You could forgive Arsenal for looking past the Black Cats a little bit given those circumstances. However, after failing to beat Boro, the odds of that happening seem a little slimmer. Arsenal are experienced enough at this point to know they have to get back on the right track sooner rather than later.

Sunderland away has always been a difficult fixture for the Gunners, though their record there has been much better in recent years (except for last year's scoreless draw.) If Arsenal were to drop points at the Stadium of Light tomorrow, you get the sense that all of the positivity surrounding the club during their winning streak this month might just ebb away entirely.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Pérez (ankle,)Ramsey (hamstring,) Mertesacker (knee,) Welbeck (knee)
Doubts: Walcott (illness,) Cazorla (Achilles)
Suspended: Xhaka (third of three, serious foul play)

Get well soon, Santa! I mean, Santi.
Arsenal are mostly sweating over the fitness of Santi Cazorla at the moment; the Spaniard missed the Middlesbrough and Reading matches with an Achilles problem and looks doubtful to return at the moment. With Granit Xhaka serving the third match of a three game ban, Arsenal will have to continue with Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny in the holding roles, especially as Aaron Ramsey is not yet match fit to return from his hamstring problem.

Elsewhere, there were whispers after the match on Tuesday that Theo Walcott was not merely rested but "was not well." That's enough to throw him into the doubt category here, but not enough for me to remove him from the predicted squad. If he's not fit to go, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who scored twice midweek, should slip into the right wing position. I've given Theo a lot of crap over the years, but he has been playing brilliantly this season. Now, don't make me regret these words.

There's bad news regarding Lucas Pérez, as the Spaniard is expected to miss six weeks with ligament damage in his ankle after taking a kick on Tuesday. Since Olivier Giroud is back in the fold, this news would have been much worse a week or two ago for the squad as a whole, but six weeks is still much longer than Arsenal would have liked.

All that said, I don't expect any changes to the XI that drew Boro last week, mostly because nobody else looks to be coming back. Obviously, Cazorla is the biggest absence for the Gunners in terms of their fluidity on the pitch; per Sky Sports, they average 2.15 points per game when he's starting (85 matches) and 1.63 when he's not (38 matches,) over the last four seasons.

Predicted XI: Čech, Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Elneny, Iwobi, Walcott, Özil, Alexis.

Sunderland Squad News

Out: Larsson (knee,) Borini (groin,) Kirchhoff (hamstring,) Mannone (elbow,) Cattermole (back)
Doubts: Januzaj (ankle,) Denayer (groin)

I can see how it would be difficult to fly
in this fog...
It's not really ideal circumstances in terms of rest for Sunderland, playing a lunchtime match on Saturday after a Wednesday night cup tie in Southampton which saw the Black Cats not only lose, but have their plane grounded due to fog. That meant the team did not get back to Wearside until Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours before this fixture's scheduled kickoff.

As for the squad, Arsenal will get to avoid playing two former Gunners as Vito Mannone is out until November with an elbow injury and dead-ball specialist Sebastian Larsson is out until February with a knee injury. Lee Cattermole, who is now vice-captain instead of captain, is out with sciatica. Fabio Borini is out until December with a groin problem and Jan Kirchhoff is out with a hamstring injury, but could be available next week.

There's a major doubt over Adnan Januzaj, who is still on loan from Manchester United and hasn't been sold yet or anything; he has an ankle injury. Jason Denayer, on loan from the other side of Manchester, is 50-50 with a groin problem.

With Mannone injured, 22-year-old Jordan Pickford has been starting in goal; recall he was, well, recalled from his loan spell at Preston North End back in January and played against Arsenal in the FA Cup. Regarding the rest of the squad, David Moyes made only four changes between their loss to West Ham at the weekend and their loss to Southampton in the League Cup. With no alleviation to their injury situation, I'd expect to see the same XI that played in the league last week.

Predicted XI: Pickford, Manquillo, Kané, O'Shea, van Aanholt, Watmore, Khazri, N'Dong, Pienaar, Rodwell, Defoe.

Current Form

David Moyes was sent off for swearing at the fourth official
during Wednesday's League Cup tie.
Arsenal extended their unbeaten run to 13 across all competitions with their win on Tuesday against Reading, their longest within a single season since 2009; they had a 14-match unbeaten run spanning the end of the 2013/14 and start of the 2014/15 seasons. Spanning this year and last, Arsenal have lost just once since they bowed out of Europe at Camp Nou in March, making it just the one loss in their last 23 matches across all competitions. A word of warning about that 13-match unbeaten run in 2009: it was snapped at the Stadium of Light. More on that later.

Sunderland have two wins this season and both were in the League Cup: 1-0 over Shrewsbury Town and 2-1 over Queens Park Rangers. They've been eliminated from that competition now, having lost 1-0 to Southampton on Wednesday. In the league, they've drawn two and lost seven. They've drawn against Southampton and West Brom and they've lost to Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Everton, Tottenham, Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and West Ham. As such, they are already dead last and five points from safety. Their goal difference, at -10, is second worst in the league; only Hull City have a worse differential. Their six goals scored is the fewest in the top flight.

Match Facts

This looks like one of the more interesting moments of this
fixture last season.
As I mentioned in the intro, Arsenal have often struggled at the Stadium of Light, but they did have a four-match winning streak there in the league going into last season's fixture, played in late April. That was a 0-0 draw with Mike Dean in the middle (so, just like last week's game in a lot of ways.) As noted in last week's preview in the referee section, both sides were denied a penalty shout in that match.

Arsenal beat Sunderland at the Emirates twice last season, in the league in December and in the FA Cup a month later. Both matches ended 3-1 in favor of the Gunners. Arsenal's goal scorers were the same on both occasions as well, with Joel Campbell, Olivier Giroud, and Aaron Ramsey all scoring for Arsenal on both days, in that order both times. The only difference was the timing of Sunderland's goal. In December, Sunderland equalized before halftime with an Olivier Giroud own goal from a set piece. In January, Sunderland scored first, through Jeremain Lens, before Arsenal came back to win comfortably.

Sunderland's last league win against Arsenal came in November of 2009; Arsenal had just lost Robin van Persie to injury over the preceding international break and Darren Bent scored in the 71st minute to give Sunderland a 1-0 win. As mentioned earlier, that snapped a 13-match unbeaten run for the Gunners. Sunderland also beat Arsenal 2-0 in a 2012 FA Cup tie.

The Referee

Altidore stayed on his feet and scored from this chance, but
Atkinson angered the Stadium of Light by blowing up for
this foul, which might have cost the Black Cats a point.
The referee is West Yorkshire-based Martin Atkinson. Historically, Arsenal do not have a particularly strong record with Atkinson in the middle, but they have won two straight with him and one of them was against Sunderland, so that's something.

Last year, Arsenal had Atkinson in the middle on four occasions. On opening day, they lost 2-0 at home to West Ham. Three months later, Atkinson was in the middle for a North London derby, in which Arsenal came from behind to draw Spurs, 1-1. Then, the aforementioned match with Sunderland in the third round of the FA Cup, which Arsenal won 3-1.

Finally, in mid-February, Atkinson was in the middle for Arsenal's top of the table clash with Leicester. You'll recall the wild circumstances, as Jamie Vardy "cleverly" won and converted a penalty late in the first half by initiating contact with Nacho Monreal in the box. Atkinson gave Arsenal a make-up call in the second half, as he showed two quick yellows to Danny Simpson, and Arsenal scored twice against the 10 remaining Foxes. That was the only red card Atkinson showed last year.

Sunderland have already seen Atkinson once this season, for their 2-1 derby loss to Middlesbrough back in August. Last year, aside from the FA Cup loss to Arsenal, Sunderland also saw Atkinson for a loss to West Brom, a win over Crystal Palace, and a derby draw with Newcastle.

Atkinson worked this fixture back in 2013/14, which you may remember was Mesut Özil's first match with Arsenal. Sunderland fans may remember the match negatively for more than just the 3-1 scoreline. With Arsenal leading 2-1 late in the match, Sunderland should have had an equalizer through Jozy Altidore, but Atkinson inexplicably blew his whistle to call a foul on Bacary Sagna outside of the match, when he should have played advantage and allowed the goal. Aaron Ramsey added an insurance goal later to secure all three points for the Gunners.

Around the League
  • Saturday: Manchester United v. Burnley; Old Trafford, Manchester
  • Saturday: Middlesbrough v. Bournemouth; Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough
  • Saturday: Tottenham Hotspur v. Leicester City; White Hart Lane, London
  • Saturday: Watford v. Hull City; Vicarage Road, Watford
  • Saturday: West Bromwich Albion v. Manchester City; The Hawthorns, West Bromwich
  • Saturday (late): Crystal Palace v. Liverpool; Selhurst Park, London
  • Sunday (early): Everton v. West Ham United; Goodison Park, Liverpool
  • Sunday (late): Southampton v. Chelsea; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Monday (night): Stoke City v. Swansea City; Bet365 Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and an Austrian play. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat to find out what happens in the third act. Spoiler alert: it was the security guard, not the butler.

Arsenal 2-0 Reading: No Muss, No Fuss

The thing is, despite the relative ease with which Arsenal found themselves into the quarterfinals of the League Cup, Reading weren't that bad today. The more this game went along, even though it was against our second and third-stringers, the more I thought to myself: "Are these guys really any worse than, say, Sunderland?" Whatever their relative merits, the Arsenal reserves/kids acquitted themselves well to put us deeper into the competition than we've been in ages.

Speaking of, I always say that this particular tournament is a Bizzaro Word facsimile of what we usually know to be true, and it wasn't any different here. There were things conspicuous by their appearance - such as a loud, boisterous crowd at the Grove - as well as those by their omission. Sure, the red-and-white shirts were there, but we have such a settled side these days that it's weird to not see Hector Bellerin's barnstorming runs down the right, or Petr Cech's calm assurance in the back, or Laurent Koscielny flying here and there with brilliant tackles, or Mesut Ozil's languid genius.

Given the game but limited opposition, it probably makes sense to simply give my thoughts about the stand-ins and understudies that made up today's dramatis personae:

Damian Martinez: I have, in general, been supremely unfair to this guy over the last few seasons. I haven't rated him at all, mainly due to a horrid performance in the infamous 7-5 win over this same opposition in this very competition a few years back. The guy in between the sticks today was a mirror image of the shaky kid who played on that occasion. One save where he caught and held from a tough header springs to mind, as well as a fabulous save he made towards the end of the game to preserve his clean sheet. Calm and assured, he's probably unlucky that he's got two world-class keepers ahead of him. If he keeps improving at this rate, I'm not sure how much longer he'll be content to play third-string.

The Back Four: Perfectly fine, though they weren't tested all that much over the course of the match. I don't know if I'll ever wrap my head around "Kieran Gibbs - battle-tested veteran captain", but I think it speaks volumes that Reading barely ventured down that side of the field. Partially, it had to be because they wanted to test the recovery of Carl Jenkinson, but Gibbo didn't put a foot wrong. As for LEEEEROY JENKINSON, I was utterly astonished at how well he played. He was irrepressible in attack, sharp in defense, and had far more pace than I thought he'd have after a long lay-off. Man, if Mathieu Debuchy wasn't expendable before, he sure is now. The center-halves were fine, for the little they had to do.

The Hyphenated Lads: Of the two, I'd say that on this evidence, Jeff Reine-Adelaide is closer to being first-team ready than Ainsley Maitland-Niles is. They're both still kids, of course, which can be hard to keep in mind at times. Neither one of them looked completely out of place, but let's also remember that the opponents weren't exactly Barcelona, either. THE JEFF was neat and tidy, but never imposed himself on proceedings. Niles, well, he was game and energetic but definitely needs improvement to break into the first team. He lost the ball more than he should, was muscled off it a few times, and took a few witless hacks at goal when a pass would be better. But, the promise is there to see. Come the quarterfinals, especially if we end up with Chelsea or United or someone, I assume that Jeff might make the 18, but definitely not Niles.

The First-Teamers: I honestly forgot that Mohamed Elneny was playing at times, which is more of a compliment than anything else given his job description. Alex Iwobi was a bit subdued, which isn't surprising given how much football he's been playing. Honestly, I'm not sure why he was in the starting 11, but either way he did well enough. Lucas Perez looked a bit off, which is unfortunate as this is the best chance he's had so far to make his case for more minutes. I get the issue, though...he surely trains with the first-team group, and here he's playing with the second string. I don't think you can draw too many conclusions from this, other than that hack who injured him should have at least been booked. Hopefully the Spaniard is OK.

As for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, what can you say? We all know his recent struggles, but there's been some visible green shoots of recovery over the last few weeks. Today, forget green shoots, he was the best player in a red shirt by some distance. You can nitpick about his set piece delivery or the finishing on one or two shots, and you wouldn't be wrong. But, he caused panic in the Reading defense virtually every time he touched the ball. He also gave us virtually all of the fluidity in our attack, switching wings and then alternating to the center to keep the other guys off-balance all day. The first goal was a bit opportunistic given the idiotic giveaway by the Reading defender, and the second goal benefited from the defender's deflection that wrong-footed Ali Al-Habsi in the Reading goal. But, that is secondary to the idea that he made things happen all day, took the initiative, and played a massive part in getting us to the last eight of the tournament.

The Substitutes: The sight of Olivier Giroud making the bench after his injury lay-off meant that today was all about getting him 20 or 30 minutes to ease him back into the first-team picture. I'd be lying if I expected him to set the world on fire given that it was his first game back in a while, but that was about as good of a 20-minute cameo as you'll see. He gave us an added dimension from the moment he stepped onto the pitch, holding up the ball much better than Lucas had been able to. Soon after he came on, he directed a thunderous header on goal, only repelled by a brilliant save by Al-Habsi (speaking of, the Omani keeper made two or three other excellent stops to keep his team in the game far, far longer than they should have done). Not only that, but he was vital to the build-up to the second goal. He did well to keep the ball from going over the end line, then cut it back brilliantly for Ox to finish.

Chris Willock and Gedion Zelalem didn't get a ton of time to make a difference, but it was nice to see them all the same.

So, into the last eight, then. We already know that we'll be joined in the hat by Hull City, Leeds United, Liverpool and Newcastle. More than likely, tomorrow will see Southampton and Chelsea added to the list, as well as one of the Manchester sides. Quite a few tricky ties are possible, but if we can get the balance right between getting the kids some minutes and playing a side strong enough to win, why can't we take this thing down? It's kind of nuts that Arsene hasn't won it yet, and isn't it about time? I think so.

Man of the Match:  Ali Al-Habsi

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Reading, League Cup Fourth Round

Emirates Stadium, London
Tuesday, October 25
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Graham Scott
    • Assistants: Richard West and David Bryan
    • 4th Official: Mike Jones
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 13 Arsenal wins
  • All-Time in the League Cup: 3 Arsenal wins
  • Arsenal's Path Here
    • Third Round: Beat Nottingham Forest, 4-0
  • Reading's Path Here
    • First Round: Beat Plymouth Argyle, 2-0
    • Second Round: Drew Milton Keynes Dons 2-2, won 4-2 on penalties
    • Third Round: Beat Brighton & Hove Albion, 2-1
  • Arsenal's Premier League Form: W-W-W-W-W-D
  • Reading's Championship Form: W-L-D-D-L-W
Ah, we're back to photos like these now.
You can't win 'em all. One of the first things I checked after the match was to see points dropped at home to bottom-half teams in a championship winning season, something Sean ended up independently noting in his recap. Leicester City, who won the league last season, had draws at home to West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth. Burnley got a draw at Stamford Bridge two years ago. Sunderland drew at Manchester City three years ago. Even the Invincibles had home draws against the likes of Portsmouth, Birmingham City, and Fulham.

You can't make a habit of dropping points at home, of course, something I've waxed poetic about on many occasions. Arsenal have already dropped five points at home this year and it's still October. Sure, they're only second on goal difference, as part of a three-way tie for first place. But results like this can catch up with you in the long run. I get the sense that, like last season, the seriousness of this title challenge will be decided in February and March.

So now, we turn our focus to the League Cup and some squad rotation. Time to recharge the batteries before a trip to Sunderland, a trip to Bulgaria, and a North London derby on the horizon.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Cazorla (Achilles,) Ramsey (hamstring,) Akpom (back,) Mertesacker (knee,) Welbeck (knee)
Suspended: Xhaka (second of three, serious foul play)

Who's ready for some BANTER?!
Arsenal's attack has been so prolific of late, you can understand why Arsène Wenger would be reluctant to make changes to the forward quartet in league and European fixtures. At the same time, when every cross against Middlesbrough found the head of a center back instead of the diminutive Alexis Sánchez or Theo Walcott, you could really see how Arsenal need some different options every once in a while, a plan B, possibly in the form of a tall bearded Frenchman. Enter Olivier Giroud, who has returned from the black hole with some much needed height, hold-up play, and possibly scientific research, I don't know. My guess is he comes in off the bench for a cameo.

Elsewhere in the squad, Aaron Ramsey is back in full training (he's been gone over two months now,) but will still be short for this match, while Santi Cazorla has been ruled out for a second straight match with an Achilles problem he picked up against Ludogorets.

As for the rotation, Wenger said, "It will be a similar squad to against Nottingham Forest." He spoke about the back four in specifics, as Kieran Gibbs will captain the squad from the left back position, Gabriel and Rob Holding will play in the center of defense, and Carl Jenkinson will make his first appearance for the red and white since scoring against Norwich on the final day of the 2013/14 season. Wenger also mentioned Jeff Reine-Adélaïde as being in line for a start and said that Alex Iwobi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Alex Lucas Pérez will all play. Chuba Akpom is out with a back injury, however.

As is tradition, I do not predict line-ups for League Cup ties, as I could end up being completely off base. The above paragraph gives some pretty good indications as to my expectations, however.

Reading Squad News

Out: Mendes (hamstring,) Quinn (knee,) Rakels (ankle,) Méïte (ankle)
Doubts: Cooper (ankle)
Suspended: Gunter (one match, accumulation)

These are terrible change kits, Reading. Just awful.
A lot of the talk coming out of the Reading camp is a lot of what you would expect from a second division team going up against a top flight opponent. Captain Paul McShane, who scored the match winner at the weekend on his return from injury, said, "it will be a good test for everyone. The shackles are off – we’ll go and enjoy the game, and everything is possible." Manager Jaap Stam has said the club hadn't really focused on the upcoming tie until this week, having played six Championship fixtures since the drawing originally took place. Pretty much your standard "we're gonna go out there and have fun with it and see if we can get something, but we know the league matters more."

Basically, Reading have nothing to lose, which is dangerous ground for Arsenal.

Reading have rotated their squad for previous League Cup ties, but this is the first time they will be facing a Premier League opponent, so it's not clear if Stam will maintain his league XI against stiffer competition. Right back Chris Gunter will be forced to miss out, having picked up his fifth yellow card of the season at the weekend.

I'm unclear on the severity of some of Reading's injuries, but as of late, they have been without Joseph Mendes, Stephen Quinn, Deniss Rakels, who broke his ankle in an earlier League Cup tie, Jake Cooper, and Yakou Méïte. Méïte, signed from PSG this summer, featured for Reading's Under-23s on Sunday and was removed at halftime. Cooper could return for this match.

Current Form

It took some Matrix-style maneuvering to deny Boro at times.
Well, the winning streak was snapped at six games in the league and seven across all competitions. Not too shabby, all things considered, as Arsenal went from stumbling out of the gate in August to joint top of the table in both the league and Europe. They are unbeaten in 12 across all competitions dating back to their season opening loss to Liverpool. They will look to extend that streak to lucky 13 for the first time since a 14 match run spanning both seasons between April and September of 2014. Arsenal also had a 12 match run within the same season at the start of 2013/14, which also came after a season opening home loss. Both of these previous unbeaten runs were snapped by Borussia Dortmund.

Reading are currently eighth in the Championship and have advanced to this stage of the League Cup after wins over Plymouth Argyle, Milton Keynes Dons, and Brighton & Hove Albion; the win over MK Dons required a penalty shootout. Prior to this recent weekend, however, Reading had been winless in four, with losses to Brentford and Aston Villa and draws against Derby County and Queens Park Rangers. On Saturday, the Royals returned to winning ways with a 1-0 win over Rotherham United, a side who are currently deadbolted to the bottom of the table.

Match Facts

Could use some more scoring.
Arsenal and Reading have met 13 times across all competitions and Arsenal have ended up on the winning end all 13 times. The last two cup ties between the two both required extra time, under very different circumstances.

In the fourth round of the League Cup in 2012, Arsenal spotted Reading a 4-0 lead, then pinged one back just before halftime. Then, they scored three more, including the equalizer with the final kick of regular time. Then, Marouane Chamakh scored to put Arsenal ahead, but Reading drew level again. In the 120th minute, Theo Walcott scored a winner. Then, Chamakh scored again, just to further confuse everyone. 7-5, after extra time.

In 2015, en route to Arsenal's second consecutive FA Cup title, the clubs met in the semi-final at Wembley. Just as in 2014 against Wigan, Arsenal needed extra time to advance against a second division opponent. Against Reading, however, Alexis Sánchez scored in added time of the first half of extra time (so 105+1') on an Adam Federici howler.

Arsenal have been eliminated in this round of the competition or earlier in each of the last three seasons. The last time Arsenal advanced past the fourth round was 2012/13, after beating Reading 7-5. They lost in the fifth round to Bradford City on penalties. I'm sorry for reminding you of that. Reading have not reached the fifth round since 1997/98.

The Referee

For some reason, I'm picturing him as a Bond villain.
The referee is Oxfordshire-based Graham Scott. The 48-year-old Scott was promoted to the Select Group in the summer of 2015, replacing the retired Chris Foy. He has only worked one Arsenal match in his career, but unfortunately for the Gunners, that was their failure at this stage of this competition last season, the 3-0 loss at Sheffield Wednesday. That match was, of course, a total nightmare. Despite his promotion to the Select Group, Scott only worked four Premier League matches last season and has only worked one top flight match this season (and that was a win for Tottenham, so that's disappointing...)

Scott has not worked a Reading match since February 10, 2015, a midweek Championship fixture between Reading and Leeds at the Madjeski, which the Royals lost 2-0.

Scott has found himself in the center of some controversy in the past, particularly when he subbed in for an ill Andre Marriner in a fixture between Swansea and Sunderland back in January. Scott gave Swansea a dubious penalty, but also gave them a dubious red card as Sunderland went on to win 4-2. The red card, to Kyle Naughton, was later rescinded. Scott was said to have "all the major decisions completely wrong."

This does not fill me with much confidence.

Around the Fourth Round
  • Tuesday: Bristol City v. Hull City; Ashton Gate Stadium, Bristol
  • Tuesday: Leeds United v. Norwich City; Elland Road, Leeds
  • Tuesday: Liverpool v. Tottenham Hotspur; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Tuesday: Newcastle United v. Preston North End; St. James' Park, Newcastle upon Tyne
  • Wednesday: Southampton v. Sunderland; St. Mary's Stadium, Southampton
  • Wednesday: West Ham United v. Chelsea; Olympic Stadium, London
  • Wednesday: Manchester United v. Manchester City; Old Trafford, Manchester
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and a marsupial. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat to ask how marsupials can type so well.

Arsenal 0-0 Middlesbrough: Champions League Hangover

These games happen.

Last season, Leicester drew with Bournemouth (by this scoreline) and West Brom at home; Aston Villa, Bournemouth (again), and Stoke away..among seven other draws against bigger sides. They won the league by 10 points.

Fluke team? WORST LEAGUE CHAMPS EVER INNIT INNIT INNIT? Fine. Two seasons ago, Chelsea drew Burnley at home, and away they lost to Newcastle, West Brom (3-0!!!)...oh, and drew against Sunderland. They won the league by 8 points.

So, let's all relax. As those plucky little underdogs Manchester United showed on Monday past, sometimes a small team can play 10 center-halves and gut out a draw if their discipline holds and they ride their luck a bit. Snark towards Jose Mourinho aside, Middlesbrough could (should?) have won this game outright, to be fair.

I don't know. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that there wasn't any rotation other than Mohamed Elneny coming in for the suspended Granit Xhaka, but the guys looked a little...shagged out. There was possession - a lot of it (try 72% by game's end), but as much as we huffed and puffed there wasn't a way around the wall of blue shirts in front of Victor Valdes' goal.

After about 15 minutes of sterile domination (think a bored Long Island housewife reading Fifty Shades of Grey), all we had to show for it was a rather ambitious penalty shout, rightly - I think - turned down by Mike Dean. Sure enough, Boro went right up the other end and damn near scored twice.

We lost the ball at the halfway line when Laurent Koscielny dithered badly, and they countered quickly and well. Adama Traoré was played in alone, but Petr Cech came out well to cut down the angle. He saved with his feet, and was up quickly enough to save the rebound. The second save was brilliant, but why Alvaro Negredo opted to go short side with the far side gaping is an absolute mystery to me.

Virtually seconds later, Boro won a free kick on another counter, and Cech could only watch as Gaston Ramirez curled it over the wall and onto the bar. That was the theme of the half - we had all of the ball, they had all of the chances.

Valdes made a decent save on a free kick by Alexis Sanchez, but continuing that theme, Boro stormed straight back up the pitch and should have been ahead again. This time, Traoré crossed it in, one of their guys won the second ball, and it looped out to Ramirez unmarked on the far post. He thumped in a header, but Cech was there to batter it away. While it was right at him, to be fair, the brilliance in that save was in the rebound control. Check out this picture from Getty Images - had he not deflected it out, they had two guys there to tuck in the rebound.

We did have one more chance before the half, but Mesut Ozil was a half-step too slow to get to Theo Walcott's dragback across the six-yard box.

That was the thing, really. Those two, Alexis, and Alex Iwobi were a bit off the pace all game long. When the defense is massed in front of you like this, either they have to make a mistake or there has to be some kind of moment of brilliance to unlock enough space to fashion quality chances. Forget moments of brilliance, there weren't that many moments of competence today.

But, like I said, it happens in a 38-game season. The lot down the other end of the Seven Sisters aren't too happy with their day's work, either.

Still, there was one shining moment where, like the Ludogorets game at midweek, we could have grabbed the second half by the throat with an early goal. It was a gift from Valdes, too, and let's be clear about this guy. He is right up there with Asmir Begovic to me as the most overrated goalkeepers of their generation. Beyond the fact that literally any professional keeper could win with THAT Barcelona team, the dude has always had a ricket or two in his locker. There's a reason he never came anywhere near dislodging Iker Casillas from the Spanish national side, that's for sure.

Anyway, Valdes got caught up with two of his defenders in dealing with a nothing cross, and in the end the keeper dropped it. Alexis was there, and though the angle was tight, a shot was probably doable. Instead, he sent a looping ball across the six, and Walcott just couldn't time it right to meet it with a header.

It was just one of those days.

Oh, right, Valdes did make a decent stop on a long-range shot from Alexis. Credit to him, that was a good save.

As the second half wore on, we brought on Lucas Perez and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Iwobi and Elneny, but it didn't change much. Boro held their ground, worked hard for one another, and closed down the spaces brilliantly. Really, they deserved their point.

How easily it could have been all three, though. Our guys mentally switched off a bit at the end, perhaps because they had even more of the ball than usual. It was that man Traoré again, who won the ball and played Negredo in alone. At this point I probably would have backed Cech to save it anyway, but Koscielny somehow made up the distance and came up with a brilliant saving tackle from behind. If he got that even 5% wrong, penalty and red card and ballgame.

Meanwhile, we had one glorious chance in injury time, and even finally found the back of Valdes' net. Unfortunately, the AR was well-placed to see that Ozil was about a mile and a half offside before he flicked it over the advancing keeper. Bugger.

Again, this stuff happens sometimes. If you had been offered 20 points and a +10 GD from the first nine league matches, and to be top of the pile in our Champions League group after three games (knowing that Paris away was in there), you'd have taken it...I'd have take it, and so would your Aunt Tilly, who doesn't even like football.

The fact that the next match is the League Cup against Reading is a welcome break from more pressing matters. I would expect that guys like Alexis and Ozil and Theo, who have all played a ton of minutes so far, will be nowhere near the starting XI on that occasion. Rest up, boys. More important games are coming. As for this one? Forget it, it's already over, and it's one point gained on a day where we probably deserved nothing.

Man of the Match: Adama Traoré

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Middlesbrough

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, October 22
10:00 a.m. EDT, 15:00 BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Mike Dean
    • Assistants: Simon Long and Ian Hussin
    • 4th Official: Tim Robinson
  • This Match, Last Time: Arsenal 2 - 0 Middlesbrough (April 26, 2009)
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 64 Arsenal wins, 33 Middlesbrough wins, 33 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: W-W-W-W-W-W
  • Middlesbrough's League Form: D-L-L-L-D-L
  • Weather: Clear, 55 °F / 13 °C
We're all worried about how far this thumb thing has gone.
I was unable to see Wednesday's match against Ludogorets as I sat in a windowless conference room all day waiting for a meeting that never started. While accomplishing some business, I took note of the fact that it seemed like every time I turned back to check the score of the match, Arsenal had scored another goal. There might have been some nervy moments through the opening 40 minutes or so, but there's no denying that Arsenal are a team that is brimming with confidence right now.

That said, Arsène Wenger has clearly tried to temper expectations and I think that's the right thing to do right now. It is October and titles are not won in October. They can be lost in October, for sure, but they can't be won just yet.

So, Arsenal have to keep taking it one match at a time and with that, they'll host promoted Middlesbrough at the Emirates. Boro started the season with a string of decent results but are now winless in six, but they've only lost once away from home this season. Every match in the Premier League is a challenge and title contenders have to pick up three points from the "easier" fixtures. Anything less undermines the other results they've picked up.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Ramsey (hamstring,) Mertesacker (knee,) Welbeck (knee)
Doubts: Giroud (toe,) Jenkinson (knee)
Suspended: Xhaka (first of three, serious foul play)

Xhaka's red card has been pretty controversial on the
Internet, but there's a significant enough contingent out
there, including former refs, who believe the call was correct.
Arsenal made four changes on Wednesday from the side that had beaten Swansea at the weekend. Tomorrow, I'd expect the squad to revert back to the same XI from the weekend, with the exception of the suspended Granit Xhaka. Some were upset that Xhaka, unavailable domestically until the North London derby on November 6, was benched in favor of Francis Coquelin on Wednesday, but I could see both sides of that coin. Coquelin, coming back from an injury he suffered against Chelsea, needed the minutes to get back to game speed, especially now that Arsenal will need to rely on him over the coming weeks with the Swiss midfielder banned.

Team news is always scant when I'm writing this on Thursdays following a Wednesday night match, so I'm going to assume that there are no new returns on the horizon. Is Olivier Giroud still in that black hole? Does Aaron Ramsey have hamstrings anymore? Will Carl Jenkinson be match fit to play in next week's League Cup tie? Do I have any more questions to put in here?

Predicted XI: Čech, Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Iwobi, Walcott, Özil, Alexis.

Middlesbrough Squad News

Out: Chambers (loan terms,) Leadbitter (hernia)
Doubts: Husband (shoulder,) Fábio (match fitness)

He might be at Boro, but he's still getting beard advice from
Olivier Giroud.
Calum Chambers, on loan from Arsenal, has started three consecutive matches for Boro but will be ineligible here to face his parent club. That likely means that Daniel Ayala, who lost his spot in the back four to Chambers, will return to the XI to deputize.

Club captain Grant Leadbitter is out until December after he had surgery in July to repair a hernia problem. Elsewhere, James Husband has been out with a dislocated shoulder and Fábio da Silva will likely miss out as he lacks match fitness.

Boro play a standard 4-2-3-1 formation with Álvaro Negredo, on loan from Valencia, starting up top. Stewart Downing returned to his boyhood club last summer and starts on the left with Gastón Ramírez, formerly at Southampton, in the middle. They could start either Adama Traoré or Cristhian Stuani on the right.

Middlesbrough signed both Victor Valdés and Brad Guzan as goalkeepers this summer. Valdés has been the starter, aside from a few matches missed through a hamstring injury.

Predicted XI: Valdés, Barragán, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Forshaw, de Roon, Traoré, Ramírez, Downing, Negredo.

Current Form

Do you think this guy just follows Özil around?
Well, the run continues. Arsenal have now won seven straight across all competitions, six straight in the Premier League, and have won nine of their last ten overall. Arsenal will look to extend their winning streak to seven in the league, something they last accomplished between February 10 and April 11 of 2015. Those were wins over Leicester, Crystal Palace, Everton, QPR, West Ham, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Burnley, though it should be noted that they also crashed out of Europe to Monaco during that time frame. The streak came crashing to a halt when soon-to-be-crowned-champions Chelsea came to the Emirates and got the scoreless draw they wanted.

Middlesbrough started their first Premier League campaign since 2008/09 with a decent string of results, picking up a draw at home to Stoke, a win at Sunderland, and a draw at West Brom. Five points through three league games left Boro in sixth place at the September international break (they were a point ahead of Arsenal at the time.) They haven't won since and have picked up only a single point since then as well, nabbing a 1-1 draw at the Olympic Stadium against West Ham. They've lost matches to Crystal Palace, Everton, Spurs, and Watford and currently sit in 17th place, out of the relegation zone only on goal difference above Stoke. They also crashed out of the League Cup at the first hurdle to Championship side Fulham.

Match Facts

Arsenal and Middlesbrough last met in the fifth round of the 2015 FA Cup. Boro came into the Emirates with their tails up, having upset Manchester City at the Etihad at the previous hurdle. Of course, teams rarely come up with giant killings twice in a row, since the second team won't (or, at least, shouldn't) be caught by surprise. Pre-beard Olivier Giroud scored twice within two first-half minutes as Arsenal ran out 2-0 winners, en route to their second consecutive FA Cup title.

The clubs have not met in the league since Boro were relegated in 2008/09. The last time league meeting between the sides was at the Emirates on April 26, 2009; Cesc Fàbregas scored twice as Arsenal won 2-0. The reverse fixture at Riverside Stadium in December of 2008 was a damaging 1-1 draw, where ex-Arsenal striker Jérémie Aliadière canceled out Emmanuel Adebayor's opener. At the time, the draw left Arsenal eight points adrift of the top spot in the league and while it would prove to be the third match in an 21-match unbeaten run in the league, Arsenal drew nine of those and never climbed higher than fourth.

Arsenal have not dropped points at home to a promoted side since a 3-3 draw with Norwich City in 2012, which came in May of that season anyway. Arsenal's last loss at home to a side that had spent the previous season in the Championship was to Newcastle United, 1-0 on an Andy Carroll header, in November of 2010.

The Referee

Mike Dean denies Sunderland a penalty here, despite Per
Mertesacker's arm being in an unnatural position.
The referee is Wirral-based Mike Dean, which you might recognize as a bad sign for Arsenal. Dean, of course, found himself duped by Diego Costa at Stamford Bridge last September, missing his elbow to the head of Laurent Koscielny before sending off Gabriel for a kick-out, a call which was later rescinded. Arsenal ended that 2-0 loss to Chelsea on nine men after Santi Cazorla was later sent off for a second yellow.

After that, I was surprised Arsenal saw Dean at all for the rest of the year (recall, after Anthony Taylor made a mess of that opening day fixture to Aston Villa in 2013, Arsenal did not have Taylor again for a full calendar year.) Still, Arsenal saw Dean twice more, both scoreless draws, first to Hull City in the FA Cup (in which Dean denied Arsenal two penalties) and second to Sunderland (in which Dean denied both sides a penalty.)

Middlesbrough had Mike Dean once last season, for an enormous fixture against Brighton & Hove Albion on May 7. Both sides, level on points going into the final match of the season, knew that win would clinch promotion. On goal difference, a draw was enough for Boro, which is exactly what they got. At 1-1, Dean sent off Brighton goal scorer Dale Stephens for a rash challenge on Gastón Ramirez, and Boro defended well for the duration, knowing a draw was enough.

Around the League
  • Saturday (early): Bournemouth v. Tottenham Hotspur; Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth
  • Saturday: Burnley v. Everton; Turf Moor, Burnley
  • Saturday: Hull City v. Stoke City; KCOM Stadium, Kingston-upon-Hull
  • Saturday: Leicester City v. Crystal Palace; King Power Stadium, Leicester
  • Saturday: Swansea City v. Watford; Liberty Stadium, Swansea
  • Saturday: West Ham United v. Sunderland; Olympic Stadium, London
  • Saturday (late): Liverpool v. West Bromwich Albion; Anfield, Liverpool
  • Sunday (early): Manchester City v. Southampton; Etihad Stadium, Manchester
  • Sunday (late): Chelsea v. Manchester United; Stamford Bridge, London
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and a lean, mean, preview writing machine. You can follow him on Twitter @zorrocat for lean, mean tweets.

Arsenal 6-0 Ludogorets Razgrad: The Score Only Tells Half the Story

People in the future will look back on this scoreline, and assume that this match against the 5-consecutive Bulgarian champions was a stroll in the park - one of the easiest Arsenal wins in recent European history. They'll be wrong. This was a hell of a slog for 42 minutes, the visitors' resistance only broken by a magical chip and four outstanding saves from our deputy goalkeeper.

Of course, I looked at the pre-match lineup and wondered why we hadn't rotated more than we did. There were starts for David Ospina in goal, Kieran Gibbs at left back and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain out on the left of our front three, but other than that it was basically as-you-were with our starting XI. I keep forgetting that if I get my fingers burnt on Football Manager 2016 by rotating my entire lineup, I can just reset the game. Arsene doesn't have that luxury.

The Eagles came to play, too. They snapped into challenges and sent some men forward in the first few minutes. People always forget this - the smaller teams can actually play a little. It looked like it might be one of those days, too, when Theo Walcott spurned a chance at a wide-open shot to send a square ball across the six-yard line into a thicket of green shirts.

Alexis Sanchez had other ideas, though. These days, there isn't much difference between too many clubs as far as their foot soldiers and squad players go. But, if one side's best players are a cut above, and they're on form, that's where the margins are. Oxlade-Chamberlain played him in, and the Chilean spotted goalkeeper Vladislav Stoyanov off his line. This is no mug, by the way, the guy is Bulgaria's # 1. Anyway, from the edge of the area, Alexis scooped an audacious chip over the keeper and into the far corner. My word. You tell me if your club has anyone who can bloody do that.

As for what happened next, I can't say I know for sure what it is. Maybe our boys relaxed a bit. Perhaps Ludogorets decided that they had nothing to lose. Maybe it was a little of both. Anyway, the next half-hour was absolutely nerve-wracking, as the visitors often had the better of the exchanges. At one point, they were even out-possessing us, which much better clubs than them have had trouble doing at our place.

I doubt that Ospina was expecting an easy night, but if he did, he was soon disavowed of that notion. First, Wanderson stung his palms from long range. Later, Jonathan Cafu took advantage of a rare mistake from Laurent Koscielny to race clean through on goal. Luckily, Gibbs was over to cover in time. Still, our Colombian stopper had to be sharp to catch and hold the resulting shot.

They weren't done, though. Dutch winger Virgin Misidjan, he of the ludicrous #93 shirt, shrugged off the attentions of Shkrodan Mustafi and came in alone. Ospina was off his line like a shot though, and punched the ball away from him before he could react.

But, no, you were totally right about him a few months ago, all you Twitter geniuses.

Here's the thing - when a much smaller team goes up against an opponent that they are not expected to beat, the psychology of the match is very different than it would be in an evenly-matched contest. Last week, I quoted The Secret Footballer. This time, I quote from arguably the greatest sports book ever written - The Game, by Ken Dryden:

Thoroughly inferior and playing in Montreal, the Wings are waiting to lose. Watching us, they are deciding whether to contest the loss or to pack up emotionally and prepare for the next game...In Montreal, trying to win with most of the game left to play, they would only rouse us into something they know they can't handle. So, they wait, and hope that we'll wait. And we do...Slowly the Wings enter the game. For thirty minutes they've been the unseen part of the show. Playing Abbott to our Costello, the Washington Generals to our Globetrotters, they are our straight man and our victim, here only to make us look good, nothing more. But letting them stay close, we've made them feel like partners in the game, and now they want something more. 
And keep them close we did, at least for a while. Ox could have set up Theo for an easy tap-in at the back post, but his pass was poorly weighted. Up the other end, Ospina had to be alert to bat the ball away from Misidjan again, and could only watch as Wanderson missed an open goal with the follow-up.

There is, somewhere out there, an alternate universe in which we were 0-4 down at this point.

Back in this one though, the Gunners essentially killed this off before halftime. The visitors had punched themselves out a bit, perhaps a bit surprised themselves at how closely-run this was (or more accurately, perhaps frustrated to not be ahead). Ozil found Walcott in some space outside the area. The England man then took a touch and walloped a curving shot past the dive of Stoyanov and in. Funny how everyone will still claim we always try and walk it in, and here we have two goals from outside the area. Mongs.

The funny thing is, the game that Dryden writes about, quoted above, eventually became a comfortable win for the Canadiens because they were just too good and too talented in the end. Once they decided to turn it on - vrooooooom - they were gone and out of sight. In possibly related news, we were 3-0 up before most of the Gooner faithful were back from the halftime restroom queues. It was all so simple, too. A surge up the left, Gibbs cut it back across the area, Ox was there to sweep it home.


What a horrible feeling it must be to have come all the way from Bulgaria, fought that hard, gone in to the interval 2-0 down and then THAT happens with 39 seconds gone in the second half, and eons left to play before you get to go home. Well, you know what? Tough. Glad it's someone else's problem for once.

All that was left to determine was the final score. The additional gloss to the scoreline came when, all of a sudden, Ozil decided to turn the rest of the half into the All You Twitter Idiots Were So Hilariously Wrong About Me That You Don't Deserve Internet Access Any More Show. Has a nice ring to it, I think.

The first one was just bloody beautiful, too - a blitzkreig counter-attack that the Invincibles would have been proud of. Koscielny wins a tackle at the edge of our penalty area, a pass up to Santi Cazorla, a long ball which Ozil runs onto, shoulder away the attentions of the defender, BANG, in the net. Hope you didn't blink.

At that point, the boss felt comfortable rotating some more. Santi and Theo came off, Mohamed Elneny and Lucas Perez came on. It was good to see the Spaniard back from injury, that's for sure. I keep harping on it lately, but I feel like we have a plethora of options and weapons now. Underestimate us at your peril.

Meanwhile, the assault on the Eagles' goal continued. Alexis should have won a penalty, and Ox was denied by an excellent stop by Stoyanov. At some point, Alex Iwobi came on for Alexis, who had earned the breather. Then, just as we thought everyone was committed to playing out the 4-0 result, Ozil struck again. Ox won the ball at the center line, and quickly moved it ahead to Lucas, who had drifted out left. The Spaniard centered it in to Ozil, who was never going to miss from in close.

It's almost easy to forget with how nervy the first half was, but fuck me, we played some brilliant football today.

A few minutes later, we scored again on a mirror image of the fifth goal, Perez again playing the ball into the middle for Ozil to finish. Just so we're on the same page here, that was a hat trick for this genius, this absolutely unique and brilliant football master. I'm just going to leave this here.

So, we sit pretty on top of the group, tied with Paris Saint-Germain on points but three ahead on goal difference. There's still the small matter of having to play the French side at our place, as well as the fact that this lot we played today will be a tougher out in Bulgaria (oh, and Basel aren't a bad outfit either). We're only halfway home. But, I'm not as worried as I would have been in seasons past. Something is different this time around. It's hard for me to articulate it, but it's there. Of course, we're still boned if Kos or Mustafi get hurt for any length of time, but for now this club is just chugging along and I goddamn love it.

Man of the Match: I know, I know, Mesut had a hattie and an assist...but if David Ospina doesn't keep them out for as long as he did, this might have been a much different story.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Ludogorets Razgrad, Champions League Group Matchday 3

Emirates Stadium, London
Wednesday, October 19
2:45 p.m. EDT, 19:45 BST
  • Match Officials from Portugal
    • Referee: Artur Dias
    • Assistants: Rui Tavares and Paulo Soares
    • 4th Official: Nuno Pereira
    • Additional Assistants: Tiago Martins and João Pinheiro
  • All-Time in All Competitions: First competitive meeting
  • Arsenal's European Form: W-W-L-L // D-W
  • Ludogorets's European Form: D-W-W-D-D-L
  • Weather: Partly Cloudy, 54 °F / 16 °C
I'd make a joke along the lines of "who is this and what has
he done with Theo Walcott," but he's still doing that
same celebration where he pretends he's an airplane.
Well played, Clone Theo...
The optimist will tell you that Arsenal have won six straight and eight of their last nine. The pessimist will tell you it's becoming too close for comfort.

On a weekend where Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur all dropped points, Arsenal's uncomfortable 3-2 victory over Swansea City, their traditional bogey team, was a critical result. Once again, we're talking about a match in which this year's Arsenal team bagged all three points where previous incarnations might have faltered.

The Gunners have a rather favorable run-in before November 6th's North London derby leads us into the next international break. Their league games are against Middlesbrough and Sunderland. There's a League Cup tie next week, at home, against Reading. And there are two Champions League group matches against Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad.

Being at home tonight, this fixture is the easier of the two. Traveling to Bulgaria five days before the derby in a couple of weeks is going to be much trickier. With that said, Arsenal have to keep winning the games they should win in Europe; they've got the advantage over PSG for top of the group right now, but they have to keep grinding out results.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Ramsey (hamstring,) Mertesacker (knee,) Welbeck (knee)
Doubts: Giroud (toe,) Jenkinson (knee)

Olivier Giroud jokingly called out Conor McGregor in an
Arsenal video, which might explain why he disappeared.
Granit Xhaka's red card against Swansea means he'll be suspended in domestic fixtures, but he remains available in Europe. If Francis Coquelin needed a rest, this would be the ideal circumstance to give him one, but he's fresh back from injury himself and could probably use the run-out to get back to game speed before being required in league fixtures. For that reason, I could see Coquelin starting this match anyway, even with Xhaka technically available.

David Ospina will take the reins in goal as he has performed well in both Champions League matches thus far. Otherwise, it's as-you-were with the rest of the line-up. I'm unsure if we'll ever see Olivier Giroud or his beard again. He seems to have fallen into a black hole (that's trou noir in French.)

Predicted XI: Ospina, Bellerín, Mustafi, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Iwobi, Walcott, Özil, Alexis.

Ludogorets Squad News

Out: None

This does not look like a sturdy table.
Word is that the visiting Bulgarian side have no injury concerns coming into this match, which is good news for me because I have a feeling it would have been very difficult to find that news if it did exist.

It would have also required me to learn Bulgarian, which alphabetically seems the same as Russian, except Ъ is a pronounced vowel as opposed to the unpronounced hard sign. Bulgarian doesn't have Ы either. Of course, Bulgarian is a South Slavic language and Russian is an East Slavic language, so they're different in a lot of other ways, but I don't actually know Russian, so I guess this is as far as I'm gonna go with this.

Лудогорец have played the same XI on matchdays one and two, so with no injuries in the squad, I wouldn't expect that to change now.

Left back Natanael is one yellow card away from incurring an accumulation ban, which is relevant for Arsenal since these sides will meet again on matchday four in Bulgaria.

Predicted XI: Stoyanov, Minev, Moţi, Palomino, Natanael, Dyakov, Lucas Sasha, Wanderson, Misidjan, Marcelinho, Cafú.

Current Form

Ludogorets scored first against PSG on matchday two.
Apparently, this guy's also an airplane.
As mentioned in the intro, Arsenal's run of form, on paper, has been nothing short of sparkling: six straight wins in all competitions, six straight wins in the league, and eight wins from nine overall. They've lost just once all season, on the opening weekend to Liverpool. Combine that with an unbeaten run of nine to end last season and things have been pretty good (or at least decent) in Goonerland. Of course, if you want to nitpick, you can start pointing to some warning signs and the fact that continuing to win games in the manner they have been is unsustainable in the long term. But people who do that are generally just curmudgeons.

Ludogorets have been playing since the second qualifying round in the Champions League this season, so their matchday two loss to PSG was their only defeat thus far in a European campaign that has already seen eight matches. Their August 13th loss to Levski Sofia in the league is their only other defeat of the season as well. That said, Levski are still unbeaten, meaning Ludogorets, who have won five straight Bulgarian league titles, are two points back of first place in the league with a game in hand. They have also advanced to the second round of the Bulgarian Cup, where they will play Montana.

And that's how I learned that Montana is a city in Bulgaria with a population of nearly 90,000.

Match Facts

Dani Abalo also celebrates like an... oh, this is just a regular
airplane. Sorry.
This is the first competitive meeting between Arsenal and Ludogorets Razgrad. In fact, this is the first time Arsenal will ever face a Bulgarian opponent.

Ludogorets have twice before faced an English opponent, as they were in Liverpool's Champions League group two years ago. Liverpool squeaked by at Anfield, 2-1, on matchday one. Mario Balotelli finally gave the Reds an opening goal on 82 minutes, but Dani Abalo equalized for the Bulgarians in the 91st, only to then concede a penalty, which Steven Gerrard converted in the 93rd minute.

In Sofia on matchday five, Dani Abalo scored in the third minute to give the hosts an early lead, but Rickie Lambert (remember him?) equalized for Liverpool five minutes later and Jordan Henderson gave the English side a 2-1 lead in the 37th. Ludogorets found an 88th minute equalizer through defender Georgi Terziev and the match ended 2-2. Liverpool went on to draw Basel at home in matchday six, thus clinching their failure to qualify for the knockout phase.

The Referee

Talk to the hand.
The match officials are from Portugal; the referee is Artur Dias. This will be his sixth UEFA Champions League tie; it's the first time he'll be working a match for either of these clubs.

He has worked a number of Europa League ties, in which English clubs do not have a good record. For example, Dias was in the middle for Manchester United's 2-1 loss at Midtjylland back in February. He worked a 1-1 draw between Spurs and Monaco in last year's Europa League group stage (not to be confused with Spurs's loss to Monaco in this year's Champions League group stage,) as well as West Ham's Europa League playoff 1-1 draw with Astra Giurgiu in Romania. West Ham went on to lose the tie in the second leg at home.

Dias has served as an additional assistant referee in the Champions League in past years, working with referee Olegário Benquerença. In 2015, Dias worked in the Under-20 World Cup, in which he took charge of a quarterfinal between the United States and Serbia. In 2013, he worked the final of the UEFA Regions' Cup, a UEFA-sanctioned amateur competition I didn't know existed but seems fascinating.

Around Europe
  • Tuesday: Bayer Leverkusen 0 - 0 Tottenham Hotspur
  • Tuesday: CSKA Moscow 1 - 1 Monaco
  • Tuesday: Real Madrid 5 - 1 Legia Warsaw
  • Tuesday: Sporting CP 1 - 2 Borussia Dortmund
  • Tuesday: Club Brugge 1 - 2 Porto
  • Tuesday: Leicester City 1 - 0 Copenhagen
  • Tuesday: Dinamo Zagreb 0 - 1 Sevilla
  • Tuesday: Lyon 0 - 1 Juventus
  • Wednesday: Paris Saint-Germain v. Basel; Parc des Princes, Paris
  • Wednesday: Dynamo Kyiv v. Benfica; Olympic Stadium, Kiev
  • Wednesday: Napoli v. Beşiktaş; Stadio San Paolo, Naples
  • Wednesday: Barcelona v. Manchester City; Camp Nou, Barcelona
  • Wednesday: Celtic v. Borussia Mönchengladbach; Celtic Park, Glasgow
  • Wednesday: Bayern Munich v. PSV Eindhoven; Allianz Arena, Munich
  • Wednesday: Rostov v. Atlético Madrid; Olimp-2, Rostov-on-Don
John Painting is a contributing writer to the Modern Gooner and expert in reading Cyrllic characters without actually knowing what the words mean. You can follow him on Twitter @зоррокат.

Arsenal 3-2 Swansea City: Eleven Defeats Fourteen

We'll take it - of course we'll take it - but on another day we so easily could have lost this. Regardless, we find ourselves in second place only on a goal difference of one, so we can't have that many complaints at how it's all gone so far.

Our starting XI was the usual, so the main story was over on their mob's touchline. Bob Bradley, our old friend, became the first American to manage a Premier League match. Beforehand, I was telling people that I was confident that we'd get over our Swansea hoodoo, which for me was a question of timing. Bradley starting during an international break meant that it wasn't quite a new broom situation, but it was still too soon for him to stamp his authority on the team.

Unsurprisingly, Arsenal controlled the ball during the early stages, and even threatened early with a Shkrodan Mustafi header off the crossbar. Swansea offered little other than the occasional dangerous counter, usually through Modou Barrow out on the wing. Still, it was the Swans that fired the first warning shot, Leroy Fer blazing over the bar when he really should at least have tested Petr Cech.

It often is the case where the other guys score soon after you've squandered a chance yourself, and sure enough the Gunners were in the lead scant minutes later. It was a scruffy old thing too, but that's exactly the kind of thing we've been missing over the last few years. Hector Bellerin's cross looked like it was going to be cleared out by Jordi Amat - Lukasz Fabianski clearly thought the same. However, Theo Walcott came in and muscled the Spaniard off the ball (yes, really) before poking past a stunned keeper.

Fabianski was able to deny Hector Bellerin soon after with a fantastic foot-save, but he was fishing the ball out of his net once again seconds later. It was off of that corner where a Swansea defender got there first, but the clearance was poor. Walcott, in another bout of opportunism, backed in on it, chested it down, turned, and fired past Fabianski.

I don't know what on earth has gotten into Theo, but long may it continue.

At that point, I'd have said that we were fully comfortable at that point and in little danger of losing our grasp on the game. Of course, we never can do things easily though, and it doesn't help that the match officials seemed to catch a collective case of the derps all at once - more on that in a bit.

The derp was found in our defense first, though. This wasn't Granit Xhaka's best day, but this may have been the worst bit of the lot. He dallied on the ball deep in our half, and got his pocket picked by Gylfi Sigurdsson. The Icelandic striker took one touch, then lashed an unstoppable shot into the top corner of Cech's net.

While we've had about as strong of a start as you could ask for, Liverpool match aside, we're going to have to cut that kind of crap out of our game if we're going to seriously threaten for the title. Instead, Cech managed to send a weak kick-out right to one of theirs, which we happened to clear away...sooner after, Amat directed a header right at our keeper when it was probably easier to score.

Halftime was a blessing when it came, that's for sure.

The Swans were a bit frisky after the restart, but that was killed stone dead by a goal of the absolute highest quality from Mesut Ozil. The German had a good game already by this point, especially with his range of passing. This time, he ran onto a perfect long ball from Alexis Sanchez, and smashed a thunderbastard of a volley into the net at the near post. No blame for Fabianski though, from six yards out there's just no time to react.

Again, we looked comfortable. Again, Xhaka was in the thick of the reason why we'd soon not be. But, first, Swansea equalized when one of our center-halves (didn't see which, sorry) lost the substitute Borja Baston, who was able to side-foot through past Cech unmarked from six yards away. That was an inexcusable goal to concede, but it would only get worse from there.

A few minutes later, another break from Barrow (who had assisted on Baston's goal by the way - fair play to him, he had a stormer) saw him taken down from behind by our Swiss man. It was definitely a bad and reckless tackle, but it was not violent and and hardly the sort of thing where you'd worry for the health of their man. Definite yellow, for sure, but here comes Jon Moss waving a bit of red cardboard around. Unreal.

At this point, I have to get into the performance of the referee and his two assistants (in particular, the one on the half we were attacking in the second half). They missed so many obvious calls, it was astonishing. Walcott got elbowed in the face in the first half - nothing. Monreal got elbowed in the face in the second half - nothing. Xhaka's foul, which was a definite yellow card but no more - straight red. Two dangerous counter-attacks that we timed brilliantly - the dumbass AR raises his flag both times. It was shocking stuff at times, bordering on sub-professional.

That said, once the sending-off happened, we were all over the shop for a while there. Barrow missed an easy header, and Sigurdsson blazed over from in close. It was grating on my nerve-endings, that's for sure. Still, either of those improperly-called offsides, had they gone the other way, could well have put this game out of reach. Hell. Theo could have done it and bagged his hat trick to boot, but his angled finish unluckily hit the post.

As full time approached, I figured we might have to kill off 2 or at most 3 minutes of injury time, but these brain surgeons somehow came up with 4. Unbelievable. Still, the best chance came to Walcott, this time the crossbar intervened instead of the post.

Finally, after we'd all been through the emotional wringer, Moss did the best thing he did all day, and blew for full time.

Frankly, we kind of got away with this one today. Swansea came to play, and only some moments of opportunism and individual brilliance proved to be the difference. Still, it's nice to know that we're capable of that when the moment calls out for it. With City and That Other North London Lot all dropping points, this day definitely could have gone a lot worse.

There are stronger challenges ahead though, and holes to plug before we get there.

Man of the Match:  Theo Walcott