January 24, 2013

If there is one thing we can say about Arsenal over the last few weeks it's this: Arsène Wenger's halftime speeches must be rather stirring. Now if we can just get those first halves sorted.

Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge on Sunday full of confidence after a strong second half against Swansea put them through to the fourth round of the FA Cup. In fact, the squad had enough confidence that the team was unchanged for Chelsea. But a couple of controversial goals, and we found ourselves down 2-0 at the break.

The team came out for the second half with a renewed vigor and created a number of chances. Newly resigned Theo Walcott notched his 15th goal of the season just before the hour mark to give Arsenal hope. The good guys continued to create scoring chances, but despite a flurry a corner kicks just before time, Arsenal fell short.

The manager spelled it out very plainly. "We didn't play well in the first half," he said. "In the second half we came out with a different spirit, a different attitude and were much more dangerous." He then added, "There's a psychological ingredient in there for sure. I felt that in the last two games that we didn't really go for it from the start." Later in the week the Boss elaborated a bit by saying that his team is "too respectful" to the opposition in the big games and does not go after them enough in the first half.

Wojciech Szczesny explained why Arsenal were so much better in the second half. "We changed shape a bit, pushed Abou Diaby forward, played with one defensive midfielder and pressed them much higher up." It just goes to show that when Arsenal play on the front foot, it's a very different ballgame.

The loss left Arsenal in sixth place - seven points out of fourth. We did still have a game in hand at that point, but as the Boss said, it was not an enviable position. "It is vital for us to win against West Ham," he told Arsenal Player."We are in a position where you are of course concerned by where we are." Captain Thomas Vermaelen concedes that the team has been left frustrated by the results against Man City and Chelsea, but insists that a top-four finish is still in the cards. "There's still a long way to go. I'm still confident," he said. "You could see it [on Sunday] in the second half. I'm still confident we can get a good [position]."

Despite that confidence, Theo thinks that something is holding them back: a lack of self-belief. Although considering that we were missing Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Chelsea, perhaps we were just missing that little bit of firepower.

Fortunately, both would return for the rescheduled game against West Ham. Poldi made the starting XI while Ox started on the bench. The other key change was resting Abou Diaby and giving Aaron Ramsey a rare chance in the middle.  But Podolski was the difference maker. After falling behind in the 18th minute from a goal out of nowhere, the German scored the equalizer on a piledriver of a shot from 25 yards out.

And then... the second half.

Just 90 seconds after the restart Olivier Giroud put Arsenal ahead off of a Walcott corner and the floodgates opened. Minutes later Poldi set up Cazorla for an ingenious backheeled shot. And almost immediately after that, the German stormed down the left side and fired a cross to Walcott who slammed it home. And not to leave it there, Grioud picked up the brace and gave Podolski a hat-trick of assists by converting another low cross from close range.

It was about as perfect as 10 minutes could be. "We created chance after chance and played at a very high pace," Wenger said after the game. "From there on it was great movement, great quality in our final balls and in our combination play."

So which of the goals was Wenger's favorite? "I always like the goals where the maximum [number of] players are involved, so I would say the Cazorla goal, because it was a fantastic collective display," he said. The manager also heaped praise on Podolski's first half strike. The man of the match also said he was very pleased with that goal, but he was equally as proud of his assists. As well he should be. He now leads the Premier League in that category.

Giroud meanwhile hit double figures with his first goal and matched Poldi's 11 with his second. The Frenchman said he was happy to reach that threshold, but insists he is looking to score a lot more in the remaining games. "I know my team-mates very well, so I feel really good in games," he said. "I have scored 11 goals and I have nine assists but I know I can do more."

So with that comprehensive win, the Gunners once again showed that when they are at full strength, the can be nearly unstoppable on offense. Of course the problem is, it's hard to be at full strength over the course of 10 months and somewhere in the realm of 60 games. Which once again brings us to the transfer window. There is one week left and Arsenal have yet to bring in any reinforcements. The tone in the blogs and in the twitterverse seems to be getting more pessimistic that the manager will bring anyone in, but he has spoken contrary to that on numerous occasions.

During the press conference ahead of West Ham, Wenger said that he is still looking for two players and that "we work very hard on it." And after the game when against asked if he had any news on potential signings he said "No." But in true Wenger style he added, " That is why I have to shorten the press conference -- I have to do some work!" Stay tuned... this one will likely go down to the wire.

Looking ahead, Arsenal head to the south coast on Saturday for an FA Cup Fourth Round tie with Championship side Brighton & Hove Albion. The Seagulls should not be pushovers. They made it to the fourth round by beating Newcastle 2-0 at home and currently sit just outside of the playoff zone in the Championship. With a mid-week clash against Liverpool coming up, Arsenal may need to rotate some from the West Ham game, but after what happened the last time we faced a club from a lower division, you can assume we will not be taking them lightly.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

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Kevin Mooney 24 Jan 2013