The week in numbers: w/e 25/3/12

Woods won his first PGA title in over 2½ years (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

924Tiger Woods ended his winless streak of 924 days on the US PGA Tour by claiming a five-shot victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

62 – Age of two-time world darts champion John ‘Jocky’ Wilson, who died on Saturday night two days after his birthday. The Scotsman won the world title in 1982 and 1989.

156 – South Africa’s Alviro Petersen scored an 8½-hour 156 as South Africa took control of the third and final Test in Wellington. They currently lead the series over New Zealand 1-0. Read more of this post

Gibbs accepts the gift that keeps on Given

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0

Gibbs 16, Walcott 25, Arteta 90+3

One of the most frequent accusations levelled at the Arsenal squad of 2011/12 is that they are a one-man team dependent on Robin van Persie‘s goals. But on a day when their talismanic captain had one of his quietest games and failed to add to his Premier League tally of 26 for the season, the rest of the side stepped up to overwhelm a dire Aston Villa. Kieran Gibbs set the ball rolling as he became Arsenal’s 17th league goalscorer of the campaign, and the result was already long decided by the time Mikel Arteta rifled home an injury-time free-kick to confirm Arsenal’s seventh consecutive Premier League victory.

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Forget about your worries and strife as Arsenal deliver bare necessities

Arsenal 3 Shrewsbury 1

Gibbs 33, Oxlade-Chamberlain 58, Benayoun 78; Collins 16

They started poorly and showed some familiar defensive weaknesses, but Arsenal‘s young Carling Cup team, featuring seven teenagers in all, eventually imposed their quality on a Shrewsbury side who pushed them hard before fading towards the end. A hat-trick of first-time Arsenal goalscorers – Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yossi Benayoun – sealed the Premier League side’s place in Saturday’s fourth round draw.

After Saturday’s limp second half display at Ewood Park, Arsenal returned to the competition seen by many as the root cause of a slump which had seen them win just six of 22 games in all competitions – and three of 16 in the league – since the 2-1 defeat to Birmingham in last season’s final.

Arsène Wenger could not have asked for a more favourable draw for his beleaguered squad than a home tie against Shrewsbury, third in League Two but 3-1 conquerors of Swansea in the previous round. On Monday he promised to “give a chance for young players to shine and find the right mixture in this competition. That means having the right balance between experience and youth”, and he delivered exactly that with a starting line-up including the 20-year old Francis Coquelin and four teenagers in Carl Jenkinson (19), Ignasi Miquel (18), Emmanuel Frimpong (19) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (18):

Fabiański

Jenkinson – Miquel – Djourou – Gibbs

Oxlade-Chamberlain – Coquelin – Frimpong – Benayoun

Park – Chamakh

Given Arsenal’s woeful inconsistency so far this season, a win and an uninhibited performance were the bare necessities required to relieve the worries and strife which had only multiplied after the defeat at Blackburn. (And, yes, I am channelling The Jungle Book. That’s what the start to the season has done to me.)

A young, inexperienced side gets off to a slow start

It should not have come as a major surprise that a team lacking in experience and familiarity of playing together should struggle in the early stages, but the natives were given reason to feel restless as they fell behind after barely a quarter of an hour.

The home side looked good in possession, but without the ball displayed the same frailties as their first team counterparts. After a couple of early efforts by Marouane Chamakh, an enterprising Shrewsbury team soon established themselves firmly in the game. Mark Wright had already served due warning by hitting a post when Marvin Morgan‘s cross was headed in from close range by James Collins, with the unimpressive Johan Djourou – captain for the night – watching from afar.

Gibbs was the first of three players to register their first Arsenal goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

With Łukasz Fabiański looking less than assured on corners and crosses, the visitors had chances to extend their advantage. Wright cut inside, only to see his shot deflected wide. And only a late Francis Coquelin intervention prevented another opportunity.

The young Frenchman was Arsenal’s most prominent player in the opening stages – tenacious in defence and willing in attack – but the right-sided combination of Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also looked promising coming forward. And it was the young full back who set up the equaliser. His pinpoint cross took a slight deflection and was met at the far post by Kieran Gibbs, whose downward header could not be kept out by Ben Smith.

The goal seemed to settle Arsenal’s nerves as they finished the half on top. Park Chu-Young, on his debut, sent a curling effort wide and Emmanuel Frimpong had a couple of efforts saved by Smith as the half-time whistle came as a relief to Shrewsbury.

Arsenal turn dominance into goals

However, the second half started much as the first had ended, with Arsenal dominating both possession and chances and growing in assurance as Shrewsbury began to tire. In particular, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s pace and directness, allied with a useful array of crosses, started to cause the visitors no end of problems.

Oxlade-Chamberlain marked his first Arsenal start with a fine goal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Fittingly, it was the England under-21 international who finally put Arsenal into a deserved lead just before the hour, finishing a patient build-up with a low right-footed drive into the bottom corner from about 25 yards. A debut goal was a fitting way for the former Southampton player to mark his first senior start for the club.

Having overturned their early deficit and with the game under control, the final 20 minutes provided an opportunity to introduce more of Arsenal’s promising teenagers. The pacy 18-year old Japanese Ryo Miyaichi came on for Park, while Dutch midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup replaced Frimpong. The latter, who turns 19 on Friday, had been on the field for barely a minute when he seized the opportunity to drive to the by-line and pull the ball for Yossi Benayoun, who had grown in influence as the game progressed, to slot home from about seven yards.

All that remained was for Arsenal to see out the final 12 minutes without incident and for a third 18-year old substitute, Chuks Aneke, to earn his senior debut. The Emirates crowd, tetchy initially after conceding the early goal, were in full voice by the end, launching into a lusty chorus of ‘There’s only one Arsène Wenger’ in support of the manager. After their initial stumble, Arsenal had eventually done what was necessary to maintain their place in a competition which may represent their best chance of silverware this season. That’s all that matters at the moment. Fans will hope that the winning habit – a one-game unbeaten run! – rubs off on the first team, who host Bolton on Saturday.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the game, Arsène Wenger was relieved to have come through a nerve-jangling evening with a win:

It was a bit nervy because we played against a good side. They were direct but not without technique. They had a direct game but they played it with intelligence and efficiency. They had a few dangerous situations in the first half, even after they scored. So 1-1 was not too bad for us at half time and in the second half we took over, they dropped physically and we played in one half after that.

He praised the performances of Oxlade-Chamberlain:

Oxlade-Chamberlain grew through the game and became stronger and stronger. In the first half he was a bit timid and suddenly he grew in stature in the second half. It was unbelievable. What came out, you didn’t expect it after the first half. He became stronger and stronger. You could see that he will be a first-team player here, that is for sure. He still has things to work on but, very quickly, he will be knocking on the door.

And he answered the growing speculation about his future with the following:

Whether I work here for the next 10 years or the next day here, I will give my maximum for the club. I will let other people assess the situation. I focus on doing well for this club, that is all. I am not bothered at all by all this speculation.

I can understand that people are unhappy and criticise but people are very quick to go overboard. I prefer it if people say I am good but I cannot complain when we lose a game and you are criticised. When we do well, we take all the plaudits so we have to take the blame when it doesn’t go well.

No detailed analysis tonight, as I was only able to listen to audio commentary of the game, but the team did exactly what they needed to, with a number of the younger players making the most of their moment in the spotlight. Oxlade-Chamberlain has drawn obvious comparisons to Theo Walcott – young, fast and ex-Southampton – but as Wenger has pointed out he is more of a winger/midfielder, whereas Walcott is a winger/striker. He is also stockier than Walcott, and at this stage in his career seems to have more tricks and a more consistent delivery on his crosses. Of course, only time will tell if he can reproduce tonight’s form against top-class opposition on a regular basis.

Coquelin also caught the attention, popping up in both boxes to make useful contributions and also showing off a good passing range. Frimpong was energetic and, as he did against Liverpool, showed that he is not afraid to take on shots from distance.

Beyond that, it seemed that Jenkinson linked up well with Oxlade-Chamberlain – although he had a few too many shaky moments defensively – while Ignasi Miquel was calm and assured. Fabiański and Djourou both experienced their wobbles – no surprise there, but the latter certainly did not set a shining example as captain as Arsenal’s defensive frailties were all too apparent in the first half. Park took a while to get going and was perhaps still a bit rusty, but will have benefitted from getting 70 minutes under his belt.

All in all, a pretty decent night’s work.

Some fans had argued in the wake of Saturday’s defeat that Wenger should have played his first team to give them a much-needed opportunity to gel. That was never going to happen. The starting XI can work on familiarisation in training, but can only really develop in the heat of battle against top-level opposition. Featuring first team players here would have done nothing more than put unnecessary miles on the clock and risk potential injury – and Arsenal have more than enough of the latter to contend with already. Instead, Wenger rightly gave new and fringe players their chance to shine and make a case for inclusion in the senior line-up – and on the evidence of this game Coquelin, Frimpong and Oxlade-Chamberlain can expect to become regulars on the bench for the first team at the very least. The experience gained here in a competitive match, albeit against lower league opposition, can only have done them good.

Arsenal man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. First start, first goal, and a performance full of pace, directness and end product. If he continues to progress, it won’t be long until Theo Walcott’s starting place comes under threat.

Arsenal earn battling win in Belgrade despite Denilson’s helping hand

Partizan Belgrade 1 Arsenal 3

Cléo 33 pen; Arshavin 15, Chamakh 71, Squillaci 82

Arsenal maintained their 100% start to this season’s Champions League campaign, grinding out a workmanlike 3-1 win against Partizan Belgrade in a game which was not without its share of worrying moments, several of them self-inflicted.

Arsène Wenger rang the changes after Saturday’s disappointing loss to West Brom, bringing Lukasz Fabianski, Kieran Gibbs, Johan Djourou, Denilson, Tomáš Rosický and Jack Wilshere into the starting line-up.

The match in the Stadion FK Partizan kicked off with only three of the four floodlights operational, and early on Arsenal often looked like they were groping around blindly in the dark. Last-ditch interventions by Denilson, with a brilliant but desperate sliding tackle, and Fabianksi, saving with his legs after a soft back header from Sébastien Squillaci, prevented the hosts from taking the lead inside the first ten minutes.

Lukasz Fabianski saved a penalty in a confidence-building performance (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The opening goal came very much against the run of play, but it was a beauty. Arshavin and Wilshere drove at the heart of the Partizan defence, with the young Englishman flicking a cheeky back-heel for the Russian to pounce on with a firm drive from 12 yards.

There then followed a sustained period of Arsenal dominance. Partizan keeper Vladimir Stojković, a loanee with Wigan last season, rushed off his line to smother one-on-ones with both Arshavin and Rosický, and even when Arshavin managed to beat him with a delicate chip Marko Jovanović raced back to clear off the line.

Arsenal appeared to be in total command until Denilson inexplicably handled Radosav Petrović‘s innocuous pass. Brazilian striker Cléo coolly slotted home the resultant penalty after sending Fabianski the wrong way. Rocked back by the equaliser, Arsenal’s dominance evaporated and the game drifted into stalemate until half-time.

However, the visitors set out for the second period with renewed ambition, as Partizan appeared content to sit back and forage on the counter-attack. It is always a dangerous tactic to employ against the Gunners, and Partizan paid the price when Jovanović clipped Marouane Chamakh as the Moroccan striker raced onto Arshavin’s defence-splitting pass. It was a soft penalty but a spot-kick nonetheless, and as the last man the defender was rightly dismissed. However, Arshavin’s attempt was blasted straight down the middle – his one lowlight in an effervescent performance – and Stojković saved with his legs to maintain parity.

Nonetheless, Arsenal gradually began to make their numerical advantage tell, dominating the ball to an even greater extent than they had before – they would finish with 64% of total possession – and pulling Partizan’s ten men all over the field. The hosts responded as best they could, throwing themselves into a series of physical challenges; Wilshere in particular will have woken up this morning knowing he had been in a battle.

Just when we were starting to wonder whether this might be one of those nights, as Arshavin’s deflected 70th-minute strike brought the finest save of the night from Stojković, Arsenal retook the lead. Rosický fizzed in a precise cross, and although Stojković tipped Chamakh’s initial header on to the crossbar, he could do nothing about the follow-up.

Sébastien Squillaci scored his first Arsenal goal with a late header (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Squillaci headed in from substitute Samir Nasri‘s corner eight minutes from time, and although Partizan immediately won a penalty after a careless tackle by Gibbs which appeared to take place outside the area, Fabianski rendered it irrelevant with a fine save. On a night when he was relatively unoccupied, the Polish keeper had the kind of game which will silence his many doubters, at least temporarily, looking secure on crosses and producing a fine late reflex save to deny Ivica Iliev.

Although still a little shaky at the back – given Partizan’s limited attacking ambitions, the defensive screen provided by Denilson and Alex Song was breached too regularly for my liking – Arsenal battled hard, attacked with purpose and will feel suitably encouraged ahead of the trip to Chelsea. Arshavin, so often a source of frustration for fans with his economy of effort, was at the heart of much of Arsenal’s attacking work, and linked up well with Wilshere, who again impressed with his vision and awareness playing in the advanced role normally occupied by the injured Cesc Fàbregas. Chamakh put in a good shift and deserved his goal, and although Rosický was some way from his best, he worked hard all night and his cross for Chamakh’s goal underlined his class.

Wenger was pleased with the way his side had bounced back after last weekend’s dismal performance:

We had a lot of the ball and created a lot of chances. However, we could not kill the game off and then we were always under threat. They came back with the penalty – afterwards we needed to keep the pace high and when we got the second goal I thought we looked comfortable.

For us it was important to win straight away after a big disappointment against West Brom. It puts us in a good position confidence-wise. Sunday is a big, big game for us. I believe we will go there with a desire to do extremely well.

And he had this to say about the under-fire Fabianski:

Fabianski had a good game. We have seen the player tonight who we see in training. He had a faultless game. I know it is in him. He got it out in the game tonight and hopefully that will give him the needed belief and confidence. I am confident he will come out as a great keeper, I have always said that. We have to keep confidence in him and he needs to gain experience from games like this.

After last night’s win, Arsenal should secure early qualification for the knockout phase if they can gain four points from the upcoming double-header against Shakhtar Donetsk (on October 19th and November 3rd). But for now their focus returns to the Premier League. Improved though this performance was, the team will need another big step forward if they are to leave Chelsea with a similar result. Didier Drogba and friends will undoubtedly be more ruthless about capitalising on any defensive frailty than Partizan were last night. But it was a job well done, and we move on to Stamford Bridge on Sunday with our heads held high once again.

Capello’s England squad: Will evolution be given time to succeed?

Fabio Capello announced his first post-World Cup squad last night, for Wednesday’s friendly against Hungary. It included just 10 of the 23-man squad from South Africa. While it is certainly a step in the right direction, it is far too early yet to draw any definitive conclusions as to whether this represents a definitive and permanent shift in selection policy by the England head coach.

Jack Wilshere

Kieran Gibbs

As yet, a squad which includes the uncapped trio of Kieran GibbsJack Wilshere (both Arsenal) and Fulham striker Bobby Zamora is no more meaningful than Sven-Göran Eriksson‘s selection of Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup. If that eyebrow-raising choice was the Swede’s attempt to deflect attention from his largely conservative selections and tactics, it was ultimately one he failed to follow through on in practice as a sparkless England exited the tournament while Walcott sat on the bench gathering dust on his boots.

The inclusion of Zamora and Gibbs represents a fairly logical progression. The 29-year old Fulham player had already impressed Capello last season, and was among those who narrowly missed out on the World Cup. Although he only scored eight goals in 26 Premier League games last season, an impressive return of nine in 14 matches en route to the Europa League final, which included victories over Roma and Juventus, suggests he is capable of being productive on the big stage. Arsenal’s 20-year old left back had already been staking a strong claim to be Ashley Cole‘s deputy before suffering a season-ending injury, and his inclusion now means he is likely to adopt this role going forward at the expense of Leighton Baines and Stephen Warnock.

The most interesting choice by far, though, is Wilshere, who may be to Capello what Walcott was to Eriksson. The 18-year old midfielder impressed during his loan spell at Bolton last season, and again at the pre-season Emirates Cup last weekend, but is yet to command anything more than an occasional cameo appearance in an Arsenal midfield which features the talents of captain Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Tomas Rosicky, Andrey Arshavin, Walcott and the recovering Aaron Ramsey. How Capello handles the introduction of Wilshere will be instructive as to his views on abandoning known experience for the unpredictability of youth. No one is expecting him to walk straight into the England starting line-up – if he did, it would be a damning indictment of English talent given his position in his own club’s pecking order – but it will be interesting to see whether he gets any playing time on Wednesday, and whether he continues to feature when Capello picks his squad for the first Euro qualifier against Bulgaria on September 3rd, and beyond.

Other notable call-ups include recalls for Walcott, Adam Johnson and Ashley Young (at the expense of Joe Cole, Aaron Lennon and Shaun Wright-Phillips), and second chances for strikers Darren Bent and Carlton Cole (with the Spurs duo of Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch dropped). Defensively, Ashley Cole, John Terry and Glen Johnson retain their places, but otherwise the rest of the line-up has been jettisoned, with Phil Jagielka, Gary Cahill and Wes Brown drafted in. And David James and Robert Green – the two goalkeepers used by Capello in South Africa – are no more, with Joe Hart likely to be promoted to the number one shirt, and Ben Foster serving as understudy. Paul Robinson was also selected, but announced his international retirement within hours, stating that he did not wish to be included as a third choice keeper.

So now we know the cast of characters for the dress rehearsal, and we will get an early indication on Wednesday of whether Capello is looking for revolutionary change or a more gradual evolution. Even then we will not know for sure how things will pan out until we have seen the squad and starting 11 for the Bulgaria match next month.

Hopefully against Hungary we will see a sensible mix of the young and the old, an encouraging performance and – least importantly, but still usefully – a win. What we don’t want to happen is for one of the two following nightmare scenarios to unfold:

Worst-case scenario 1: Capello opts for his most experienced available 11, and gives a couple of the youngsters a token 10 minutes at the end. England win comfortably against a mediocre, poorly motivated Hungary side. The media obsequiously compliments Capello on recognising the importance of experience and not throwing the baby out with the bath-water. Result: Capello reverts to the tried and tested formula for the Bulgaria game, drafting the likes of Cole, Defoe, Wright-Phillps and Matthew Upson back in and jettisoning the youngsters back from whence they came.

Worst-case scenario 2: An experimental team heavily featuring the new and fringe players puts in a performance which shows flashes of potential but is understandably stuttering. England lose to a fired-up, full-strength Hungary side. The media is thrown into uproar, stressing the importance of winning and a fast start to the Euro qualifying campaign. (The Sun immediately starts a ‘Save Joe Cole’ campaign.) Result: Capello reverts to the tried and tested formula for the Bulgaria game, drafting the likes of Cole, Defoe, Wright-Phillps and Upson back in and jettisoning the youngsters back from whence they came.

You just know it would happen too.

The thing is, it is not just Fabio Capello who will be tested in the coming weeks in terms of his resolve and willingness to change. The same is true of both the media and us, the fans. If anything, it is the attitudes of these two groups, even more than the England coach, where the process of evolution needs to happen the most and also the most quickly. We all have our role to play: patience, as they say, is a virtue. Everyone needs to take a deep breath and remember that evolution does not happen overnight but inevitably leads to improvement, whereas revolution, though quicker, is often less effective in the long run and invariably results in considerable bloodshed along the way.

England expects. But is should not expect immediate success. More haste, less speed.

———-

England 23-man squad:

Goalkeepers: Ben Foster (Birmingham), Joe Hart (Manchester City), Paul Robinson (Blackburn)

Defenders: Wes Brown (Manchester United), Gary Cahill (Bolton), Ashley Cole (Chelsea), Michael Dawson (Tottenham Hotspur), Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal), Phil Jagielka (Everton), Glen Johnson (Liverpool), John Terry (Chelsea)

Midfielders: Gareth Barry (Manchester City), Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Adam Johnson (Manchester City), Frank Lampard (Chelsea), James Milner (Aston Villa), Ashley Young (Aston Villa), Theo Walcott (Arsenal), Jack Wilshere (Arsenal)

Forwards: Darren Bent (Sunderland), Carlton Cole (West Ham United), Wayne Rooney (Manchester United), Bobby Zamora (Fulham)

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