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The week in numbers: w/e 4/3/12

McIlroy displaced Luke Donald as world number one (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

22 – Age of Rory McIlroy, who yesterday became world number one at 22 years and 10 months after winning the Honda Classic at Palm Beach. Only Tiger Woods, who was joint-second, two shots behind, has climbed to the top of golf’s rankings at a younger age.

72Roger Federer defeated Andy Murray 7-5 6-4 in the final of the Dubai Championship to win his 72nd career title. Murray had beaten world number one Novak Djokovic to reach the final.

50Wladimir Klitschko recorded his 50th professional knockout as he successfully defended his WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight title belts with a fourth-round win over Frenchman Jean-Marc Mormeck.

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The week in numbers: w/e 16/10/11

Wheldon was tragically killed after being caught up in a 15-car accident (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

33 – Age of Dan Wheldon, who was killed in a 15-car accident at the Las Vegas IndyCar race last night. The British driver had won his second Indianapolis 500 in May. In total, he had 16 wins in IndyCar and was the overall series champion in 2005.

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How will Arsène Wenger spend his money?

In the wake of Arsenal‘s euphoric 3-1 aggregate victory over Udinese, manager Arsène Wenger now faces the equally testing challenge of signing reinforcements for a squad which has seen more outgoings than incomings this summer. With a transfer fund at his disposal which reports put at anywhere between £65m (mildly pessimistic) and £100m (wildly optimistic), the usually parsimonious Wenger has an unprecedented opportunity to add revamp his side in one fell swoop. But how many players should he buy, and where should he seek to strengthen?

It has been a summer of turmoil at the Emirates like no other in recent history. Arsenal fans are accustomed to off-season transfer sagas revolving around their top players – before Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri there was Juventus’s pursuit of Patrick Vieira, Barcelona’s wooing of Thierry Henry and the malcontent mercenary that is Emmanuel Adebayor. But never have Wenger’s decisions been scrutinised – and criticised – so vociferously, and never before has there been such a revolving door of player movements. Over the course of the summer the squad has been stripped of both quality (Fàbregas, Nasri, Gaël Clichy) and depth (Emmanuel Eboué, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and loanees Denilson, Carlos Vela and Kyle Bartley). And of Wenger’s four signings to date, two – winger Gervinho and right back Carl Jenkinson – have already been blooded, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell sure to see action (at least in the Carling Cup) sooner rather than later.

But with a sackful of money (potential sellers will be rubbing their hands together with glee) and just one week to spend it (ditto), Wenger is unlikely to flood his dressing room with a rush of new names which will take time to integrate and will hinder the progress of up-and-coming youngsters such as Emmanuel Frimpong. So what can we realistically expect from him before the transfer window closes next Wednesday?

Goalkeeper

Almunia's days at the club appear numbered (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

At the end of last season many pundits identified this as a key area of need. Manuel Almunia may well be at the front of the queue for the exit, but with Wojciech Szczęsny growing in stature and exuding confidence and Łukasz Fabiański a capable and experienced backup, Arsenal appear more settled in their last line of defence than at any time since Jens Lehmann’s peak years. Szczęsny will commit errors from time to time – we should not expect perfection from such a young keeper – but has already demonstrated the talent and the mindset necessary to shrug off any setbacks.

It is difficult to see Fabiański settling for warming the bench behind his younger compatriot beyond this season – as an international with 18 caps he will surely need first team football somewhere – but that is a problem for next year, not this one.

Verdict: No activity, other than Almunia returning to Spain.

Defence

Cahill has been a long-term target for Arsenal

Injuries and the development of young players mask the fact that the nucleus of a good group already exists. On the flanks, Carl Jenkinson already looks to be a capable deputy for Bacary Sagna, while it is unlikely that Wenger will seek further cover for the injury-prone Kieran Gibbs beyond Armand Traoré.

Any new defensive signing will be a central player of substance, although whether this will be a ready-made partner for Thomas Vermaelen or a capable backup to enhance bench strength – which is currently provided by the brittle and inconsistent Johan Djourou, the seeimgly out-of-favour Sébastien Squillaci and youngster Ignasi Miquel – is less clear. We’ve all heard the links to Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka – my preference would be for the former, who is 25 rather than 29 – but Scott Dann or Christopher Samba are also distinct possibilities who would bring both a physical presence and valuable Premier League experience.

Verdict: Expect one arrival, but it may be a squad player rather than a starter.

Central midfield

Yann M'Vila (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are two distinct needs here – a holding player and a creative one. In the holding role, Arsenal have been closely linked to Rennes’ 21-year old Yann M’Vila in recent days. Six foot tall and physically imposing, he could provide steel to a midfield which has too often been lightweight in recent years. Rather than being a replacement for Alex Song, I would see him forming half of a midfield anchor pairing with Song (or Emmanuel Frimpong when the Cameroon international is called away to the Africa Cup of Nations), with Jack Wilshere taking the creative role in front of them.

In Wilshere’s absence Aaron Ramsey has appeared ill at ease being used as the creative fulcrum of the side. Tomáš Rosický or Andrey Arshavin could also fill in, although neither is ideal. Some genuine quality here would be most welcome – although it appears that an enquiry to Lille about Eden Hazard has been firmly rebuffed – but my suspicion is that Wenger will hope that Wilshere can stay fit and make do with what he already has when he is not.

Verdict: Wenger will strengthen one or the other, but probably not both. With a better defensive screen vital, I would focus on M’Vila to ensure depth in the critical holding role(s).

Wide midfield/attack

Will Lille be willing to sell Hazard as well as Gervinho? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

One of the reasons I think Wenger may pass on adding another creative central option is my perception that he is placing a greater emphasis on creating chances from wide positions this season. He already has the fitfully brilliant Theo Walcott and Gervinho has already shown signs of settling in immediately. Rosický and Arshavin can provide plenty of experience off the bench (as can the perenially injured Abou Diaby), while Ryo Miyaichi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are more youthful and pacy alternatives. Gervinho’s former teammate Eden Hazard would be an ideal fit as he can play both centrally and out wide but, having already lost the Ivorian, Lille are understandably reluctant to sell so late in the window.

With early summer target Juan Mata now at Chelsea, I suspect Wenger is happy to stay with the balance of experience and youth he already has – although, like Song, he will lose Gervinho for the duration of the Africa Cup of Nations – with depth not a major issue here.

Verdict: Possible but unlikely, unless a star name becomes available. Well-stocked with both youth and experience.

Centre forward

Zárate has been linked with Arsenal, but would he add much to the squad?

Although new captain Robin van Persie is nothing short of world-class when fit and on form, he has never made more than 28 league appearances in a single season for Arsenal, and has played fewer than half the games in two of the past four years. With Nicklas Bendtner agitating for a move and Marouane Chamakh bereft of goals and confidence, an injury to the skipper could leave Arsenal dangerously short of a central striker who can lead the line effectively. Walcott, for all his pace and goalscoring ability, is not that kind of player, and neither is the on-loan Carlos Vela.

Recent reports have linked Arsenal with a move for 24-year old Lazio and Argentina striker Mauro Zárate, who had an undistinguished load spell at Birmingham three years ago. At just 5-foot-9 and with a record of less than a goal every four games for Lazio, he is not an obvious solution for the problem. One obvious candidate who is, however, will never return to the club he left in acrimonious circumstances two years ago: Emmanuel Adebayor, who is currently surplus to requirements at Manchester City and seems most likely to move to Tottenham if he stays in the Premier League. Wenger may choose to stick with what he has, hoping that either Bendtner stays for another year or Chamakh regains his form, and relying on Walcott, Gervinho or Joel Campbell in the event of injuries.

Verdict: Essential if Bendtner departs, otherwise only a nice-to-have third priority after a defender and a midfielder, with a purchase only taking place if it is for a top-class finisher.

Of course, there is no knowing for sure what the team will look like on September 1st, but here’s my view of the likely starting XI, based on my own assumption that Arsenal will sign Cahill and M’Vila.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Cahill – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – M’Vila

Wilshere

Gervinho – van Persie – Walcott

With a Carling Cup/second XI of:

Fabiański

Jenkinson – Djourou/Miquel – Koscielny/Squillaci – Traoré

Frimpong/Eastmond – Ramsey

Rosický/Diaby

Oxlade-Chamberlain/Campbell – Bendtner/Chamakh – Arshavin/Miyaichi

Of course, I would love it if the club were able to add more than just those two players, but Wenger’s belief in his squad and the limited timescales make a last-minute spree unlikely – although I would not be surprised if he picked up a couple of handy squad players to improve cover in key positions. Anything less than two more signings will be a major disappointment. However, if Arsène wants to break open the piggy bank to throw Eden Hazard and one or two others into the mix as well, I won’t complain.

Hold on to your hats – it’s going to be an interesting week.

Sun setting on title challenge as Arsenal fire blanks against Blackburn

Arsenal 0 Blackburn 0

It is by no means over yet, but a third successive Premier League draw at home to struggling Blackburn inflicted further damage on Arsenal‘s title challenge on a day when Manchester United extended their lead at the top of the table to seven points. Crucially, with eight games still remaining in this most unpredictable of seasons, the Gunners are no longer in control of their destiny. United can now afford to lose at the Emirates and still secure the title by winning their other games.

Arsenal were able to field their strongest line up for several weeks. Theo Walcott returned from the ankle injury he sustained against Stoke in February – Arsenal’s last league win – while Alex Song was also restored to the starting line-up. Abou Diaby and captain Cesc Fàbregas were also back from their respective injuries, but started on the bench.

Almunia

Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere

Nasri

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Neither team entered this match in good form, with Arsenal winless in four and the visitors without a victory in their last six games. Both, however, had recovered from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in their previous fixtures a fortnight ago (Arsenal at West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn at home to Blackpool). At Ewood Park in August, goals by Walcott and Andrey Arshavin had given Arsenal a 2-1 win.

A fast start goes unrewarded and Almunia has a double nightmare

Unlike in recent games, Arsenal started the game brightly and could have scored three times within six minutes. Song missed with an early effort, Ryan Nelsen was relieved to see his miscue go wide and Walcott saw his shot from a tight angle saved well by Paul Robinson. In those early stages, with Samir Nasri probing in the middle of the field and Arshavin and Walcott effervescent on the flanks, Arsenal promised to settle the nerves with an early goal.

It never materialised, however, and their rhythm was disrupted by a pair of injury stoppages. First Martin Olsson went in hard on Bacary Sagna in a 40:60 challenge and came off the worse of the two. And then Nasri clashed heads with Nelsen, resulting in an egg-sized bruise which required bandaging.

A clean sheet did nothing to disguise another nightmare performance by Almunia (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

As Arsenal’s momentum dissipated, so Blackburn gradually gained a foothold in the game. They wasted a couple of free kicks in dangerous positions, but their best chances came courtesy of a jittery Manuel Almunia. The Spanish goalkeeper, still bereft of confidence, twice nearly gifted the visitors the opening goal. First Laurent Koscielny got a toe onto a low 25-yard effort from Olsson. Despite the deflection, Almunia appeared to have the shot well covered only for the ball to bounce wildly off his fingertips and just wide of his left-hand post. Then, in first half stoppage time, Robinson launched a long free kick into the Arsenal box. Almunia charged off his line, only to be easily beaten by Steven N’Zonzi, whose header looped wide.

After their early surge, Arsenal only had one other significant chance before half-time. Jack Wilshere dribbled at the heart of the Blackburn defence and continued his run into the box to get on the end of Nasri’s cross, only to make a complete mess of his shot with the goal begging. Following a bright start, they had rather petered out.

Lots of possession, a red card but still no goals

The second half continued where the first had left off, with Arsenal exerting pressure on a robust and well-organised Blackburn, who refused to buckle and were content to rely on the occasional counter-attack.

Even the arrival of Fàbregas was not enough to break the deadlock (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Ten minutes in, Wilshere was sent clear by Nasri but opted to cross instead of shooting and won a corner. Nasri swung it into the danger area, where it was met by Koscielny whose header, though well directed, lacked the power to evade Robinson.

Soon after Arshavin gave way to Fàbregas, and the captain nearly had an immediate impact, lofting a delicate chip forward which was just a yard too heavy for Nasri and Robin van Persie. Shortly after, a van Persie effort was well held by the Blackburn keeper. But for all Arsenal’s possession and territorial advantage, Robinson was rarely called into serious action.

That looked set to change, however, when N’Zonzi was issued a straight red after a two-footed challenge on Koscielny which upended the French defender. It left Blackburn a man short for the last 15 minutes.

Bendtner nearly snatched all three points with an injury-time header (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal drove on in search of the breakthrough, with Nicklas Bendtner reinforcing a forward line to which Marouane Chamakh had already been added. Fàbregas fired over. Chamakh saw an effort blocked by Olsson. Bendtner headed wide. But to no avail.

They did not stop trying, however. In injury time, a van Persie corner was met by a towering header by Bendtner, only for Michel Salgado to bundle the ball off the line. And with virtually the last action of the game, the Dutch striker headed over from five yards out.

It was not enough to rescue a win, however, and a disappointed Arsenal will rue another two dropped points. Did they dominate enough to have won the game? Yes. Did they deserve to do so? Probably. But were they robbed by a freak of fate? Not really. In truth, although they started and finished with a flourish, they had not mounted enough of a consistent threat to brandish a sense of righteous injustice. They have played worse and won this season – but they did not play well enough to win this match.

Post-match reaction and analysis

In his post-game press conference, Arsène Wenger expressed his frustration at his side’s lacklustre performance:

It was a frustrating performance because we had no pace in our game. Overall it was a flat performance with a lack of energy level, a lack of sharpness.

It is difficult to identify one special thing. I felt we started OK and after our game became flat. Very few players looked to have the resources to put the pace up in the game. Part of it is down to the fact that Blackburn defended well but I don’t put the majority of reasons down to that. I feel it is more down to our poor offensive performance today.

He acknowledged that the team will have to step up a gear if they are to rekindle their fading title aspirations:

We have to focus on our performance, not on Man United. Before we speak about the title I believe we have to come back to a good level of performance. Then we can speak about that. But we have to raise our level.

It is hard to feel anything after this game other than bitter disappointment. Six points have now been dropped in the past three games – home to Sunderland, away at West Brom and now here – all of which were eminently winnable. And this performance highlighted and summarised all Arsenal’s frailties in microcosm. There have been too many instances in recent years where Arsenal have failed to win games they have dominated, and not enough where they have got more than they deserved from a poor performance – Wolves away being one of the few exceptions this season. The opposite has been true for United, who demonstrated in their comeback from two goals down at Upton Park earlier in the day that an indomitable will to win can overcome even the most mediocre of performances. On such fine margins – and really we are only taking about that final one per cent here – are titles won and lost.

Almunia aside, nobody played particularly poorly today. But neither did they play well. Walcott and Arshavin were bright early on, Song was energetic in patrolling the central areas before picking up a knock and Wilshere, though perhaps a bit leggy after his exertions with England, never stopped pushing forward. But Arsenal’s final pass and shooting lacked accuracy, as it too often has at critical moments this season.

As I have said before, the squad is more in need of fine-tuning than an overhaul. On their day and with the full first XI available, Arsenal are the best team in the country. The quality of the second-string players needs addressing, certainly. And although it is too easy and convenient to question the desire and commitment of the squad – a view I do not subscribe to – it is hard to escape the feeling that there is something lacking in their psyche. For me, that missing ingredient is the mean streak which players such as Patrick Vieira and Martin Keown possessed in abundance, and which United and Chelsea both have in players such as Vidic, Rooney, Terry and Drogba. All too often, this group of Arsenal players come across as altogether too nice – but all it will take is the addition of one or two players with a nasty side to alter the mindset of the team.

The Premier League title has been there for Arsenal to wrestle out of the hands of United and Chelsea all season, and no matter what happens over the next few weeks there is a lot to be proud of, even if that proves to be not quite enough to break the club’s six-year trophy drought.

The sun has not yet gone down on Arsenal’s title challenge – but with every dropped point their prospects grow ever darker. Their margin for error has now been reduced to zero.

Easy to blame officials, but Arsenal undone by their own lethargy

Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0

Sometimes Arsenal are their own worst enemy. They will, with some justification, blame critical refereeing decisions which denied them a penalty and a legitimate goal for dropping two points at home. However, if they had played with the same urgency they displayed in the final 30 minutes throughout the game, Sunderland‘s obdurate rearguard would have been breached anyway. Steve Bruce will be delighted at ending a run of four straight defeats. But so too will Alex Ferguson at seeing the damage caused by Manchester United‘s midweek defeat at Chelsea mitigated.

With injuries depriving him of Cesc Fàbregas, Theo Walcott, Robin van Persie and Alex SongArsène Wenger named a depleted side which saw Jack Wilshere move to the head of midfield.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Denilson – Diaby

Wilshere

Nasri – Bendtner – Arshavin

Arsenal had picked up a point at the Stadium of Light in September in a bizarre match in which Fàbregas scored by charging down Anton Ferdinand‘s attempted clearance, Tomáš Rosický missed a penalty and Darren Bent (now at Aston Villa) equalised with practically the last kick of the game after Gaël Clichy belted the ball against Laurent Koscielny.

Is anybody awake?

Sunderland worked hard right from the start, making life difficult for a desperately lethargic Arsenal side in a half containing precious little action.

Bendtner had most of Arsenal's few first-half chances (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Chances came at a premium. A sliding Nicklas Bendtner, starting up front after his midweek hat-trick, narrowly failed to connect with a teasing Clichy cross. Samir Nasri weaved his way all the way to the by-line and attempted to fire home from an impossible angle, but Phil Bardsley deflected the shot into the side netting. From the resulting corner, Bendtner’s overhead kick fell straight into the hands of the grateful Simon Mignolet – a foot either side and it would have been a goal. And, again, Bendtner drew a fine save from the Sunderland keeper with a fiercely struck half-volley.

The visitors were largely content to park the bus, leaving Asamoah Gyan alone up front to forage for scraps. But Stephane Sessegnon, a January signing from Paris-St Germain, was quick to support him whenever he could, and had Sunderland’s one real chance of the half. Some clever trickery just outside the area allowed him to accelerate clear of Clichy for a moment, allowing him to get off a shot which Wojciech Szczęsny needed to be alert to parry away.

Other than that, there was little to write home about as Arsenal struggled to get any kind of fluency going.

Twice denied

The start of the second half saw little by way of improvement. There was a worrying moment for the home fans when Johan Djourou went down after receiving an inadvertent elbow to the face. But Arsenal did not come to life until Marouane Chamakh replaced the disappointing Denilson on the hour mark.

Chamakh's arrival had a positive effect, and he was unlucky not to score (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The Moroccan striker had an immediate impact. He skipped away from Titus Bramble down the right and squared for Andrey Arshavin, who should have done better with his first-time shot than to hit it straight at Mignolet. Chamakh then met a Wilshere cross with a thumping header from five yards which rattled the crossbar, shortly after Nasri had seen his free kick beaten away by the keeper.

But the real drama all came in the final ten minutes. First Arshavin was shoved in the back by the stumbling Bramble just as he shaped to shoot. Replays suggested it was a clear penalty, but none was given. Three minutes later, substitute Danny Welbeck brought a fine save from Szczęsny after Sessegnon had again beaten Clichy. And then, three minutes from the end of normal time, Bendtner’s defence-splitting pass allowed Arshavin to round Mignolet and tuck the ball into the empty net, only for his effort to be disallowed for offside when he was a foot onside.

Arsenal, suitably affronted, still had time to create two more clear chances, but Bendtner nodded straight at Mignolet and then Koscielny glanced a header wide.

Quantitatively, after United’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, it was a point gained. In reality, it was two points lost. And, although two key decisions had gone against them, Arsenal really had nobody to blame but themselves.

Post-match reaction and analysis

Wenger was furious after the match:

We have given everything in the end but we lacked a little but of sharpness in the final third. We had two decisions go against us today that punished us severely, especially the offside [against Arshavin].

Today was the kind of game you want to win 1-0. We do not want to have things going against you – it happened.

Ahead of Tuesday’s crucial Champions League second leg in Barcelona, he had little positive injury news to offer:

No [on Walcott]. No van Persie. Fàbregas has a chance. [Wilshere] has an ankle problem but we will see how he responds to treatment tomorrow. He’ll be out of training maybe one or two days.

Having listened to the game on the radio and seen only the Match of the Day highlights, I won’t go into any in-depth tactical analysis, but here are a few observations.

Whether coincidental or not, Arsenal’s performance turned after Denilson’s substitution. It’s too easy to blame him for everything, but the Brazilian continues to slow the pace of attacks with his refusal to play any kind of adventurous forward pass. Against a determined and well-organised Sunderland side and on a day when Arsenal sorely lacked the creativity of Fàbregas, the pace of Walcott and the guile of van Persie, that simply isn’t good enough. Diaby is not a passer, and is still short of full fitness anyway. And although he seemed to play quite well and with his usual dynamism, it was asking a lot of Wilshere to carry the entire creative burden in midfield when playing out of his accustomed position. It speaks volumes for the 19-year old’s talent that we expect him to do that at all.

Arshavin and Nasri both had their moments in the second half, and although Bendtner failed to score from several chances, none were in any way bad misses. The service to the front men was poor, and Arsenal were too often left passing the ball harmlessly around in the final third, lacking the wherewithal to stretch the Sunderland defence out of shape.

Defensively, Arsenal were fairly solid, although Clichy will be glad not to have to line up against Sessegnon again this season. Szczęsny had precious little to do, but made the important saves when called upon. Koscielny did everything he could to add an additional body to the attack in both open and set-piece play.

Two points dropped, and although Arsenal are still three points behind United at the top of the table – United play at Liverpool later today (Sunday) – their fate remains in their own hands, with the league leaders still facing a trip to the Emirates. If anything, though, Arsenal will be glad that six of their last ten games are away from home. Too often at the Emirates this season against so-called lesser teams, they have dropped points unexpectedly. They can ill afford to allow any more to slip away.

And so it is on to Camp Nou on Tuesday night, with the FA Cup quarter-final at Old Trafford next weekend. It’s a tough week ahead, and potentially a defining one.

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