August 30, 2013

What a difference a week makes.

In the wake of the loss to Aston Villa, Arsenal supporters were filled with a sense of despondency. How could things have gone so wrong after such an impressive pre-season?

Turns out that maybe it was just a blip. After all, Arsenal returned to winning ways in Istanbul – in a pretty impressive way mind you – and continued their fine form in the ensuing days. First in a London derby against Fulham and then in the return leg against Fenerbahce in the Champions League.

Many were expecting a tight game at Craven Cottage. But despite the drenching rain, Arsenal took control  early and never looked back. Olivier Giroud opened the scoring with his third goal in three games. A few minutes before the break Lukas Podolski doubled the lead with a blast from the edge of the area. On the other end, Fulham created a good number of chances, but some quality saves by Wojciech Szczesny and some excellent defense by Per Mertesacker held them at bay for most of the game. Poldi effectively put the game away in the 68th minute with his second goal of the game, although Darren Bent did pull one back for the home side a few minutes later.

After the game, Arsène Wenger discussed tactics. "We adapted our style of play a bit today but we were very dangerous every time we won the ball back. It was impressive because we had a good mixture of patience and speed in our game."

And there also seem to be a very nice balance in the starting XI. While Poldi's finishing made the difference, the precise passing of Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey made it all possible.  If nothing else, the squad showed that they have some really strong chemistry on the pitch. Giroud touched on that, noting the difference between the performances against Villa and Fulham. "When it doesn't work [on the pitch] people want to talk about new signings. We really wanted to show the squad is together, we wanted to give an answer on the pitch and we did well."

The win also forced people to reconsider what the loss to Villa actually meant. The boss put it this way: “Look, we lost one game since the beginning of March. That's why I think it was a shock. Of course the defeat was a shock because it's the first game of the season. But still, we've lost one game since the beginning of March. We won in the Champions League away at Bayern. We won 3-0 at Fenerbahce."

Carl Jenkinson added, "I think everyone took [the loss] a bit personally and looked at themselves and thought 'that isn't good enough'. We've gone out since and I think in the last two games we've performed exceptionally."

And then we performed exceptionally well again against Fenerbahce at home.

Let's just say it. Aaron Ramsey is just showing off now. He put in another fantastic performance in the midfield and scored twice. His second was especially impressive and Wenger used that goal to point out just how far Ramsey has come. "It's a good finish and a year ago he would not have taken that chance the way he took it here. He's improving from week to week."

The player himself said, "Things are happening naturally on the pitch so I'm feeling good out there at the moment. Confidence is such a big thing in this game and I feel like that's definitely been the biggest change."

Another highlight of the win was Szczesny's performance in goal. He made some spectacular saves and kept his second clean sheet in three games. Still, he wasn't entirely satisfied. "Hopefully we can get a few more clean sheets in the Premier League because we've not kept one yet. It's a little bit of an obsession for me so hopefully we can improve on that."

He then added, "I don't like to concede. The one against Fulham does my head in."

But there was one very big lowlight that happened in the game against Fenerbahce. Podolski had to be stretchered off with a severe hamstring injury early in the second half. He is set to miss around 10 weeks, which seriously depletes our options up front. It especially hurts after his fantastic showing against Fulham. Prior to Poldi's injury , Wenger was sounding like a man who was rather happy with his strike opitions. "By scoring the goals and being efficient offensively they are proving a point," he said. "I am sure of their quality."

But if there is a tiny silver lining to that enormous dark cloud, it's that the transfer window is still open. Granted, it has been open for months and until that point, the manager had only brought in Yaya Sanogo. But Poldi's injury and other long-term injuries to players like Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain provide a little extra urgency.

But don’t assume that "urgency" will translate into panic buys. Wenger has been clear that he will not make moves just for the sake of making moves. One of the key characteristics he is looking for in a player is versatility. So it makes sense that the Club brought Mathieu Flamini back to Arsenal on a free.

In his first spell with Arsenal, versatility was the Frenchman's middle name. Most of us remember how well he played in central midfield in the 2007-08 season, but he also filled in admirably during the Great Full Back Shortage of 2006 when Arsenal was hit by injuries to Ashley Cole, Gaël Clichy, Pascal Cygan, Lauren and Kerrea Gilbert. So with Arteta still out, Arsène planning on being cautious with WIlshere, Tomas Rosicky not having the greatest injury record, and Bacary Sagna looking like he is both our starting right back and back-up central defender…  the Flamster could just be the perfect pick-up.

In addition to that versatility, the manager also cited Flamini's attitude and fitness as reasons why he signed him. For his part, the player say he has “some unfinished business with Arsenal so it's a great feeling to be back. Once you're a Gunner, you're always a Gunner."

Incidentally, the transfer window is open until 11pm UK time on Monday, so stay tuned to for the final word on any potential moves.

One team that has not been timid in the transfer market this year are our old friends from up the road. Spurs have splashed a lot of cash this summer in what is widely assumed to be pre-emptive moves to replace Gareth Bale. They have brought in a number of quality players fill in the gaps and their record so far this season is unblemished. The biggest difference maker so far has been Roberto Soldado who arrived in north London after three impressive seasons with Valencia. That's just more firepower for the north London derby which has averaged more than five goals over the previous seven games.

The good news for us is that Laurent Koscielny looks to be back from suspension/giant gaping wound to the forehead and the knocks picked up by Rambo and Jack don’t seem to be serious. Despite losing Poldi, the starting XI should again be extremely potent. Scoring options on the bench remain a bit of a concern, but Flamini's presence should provide plenty of cover in the midfield.

The game is live on TV in North America – 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN in the United States and TSN in Canada. But this is one game you definitely shouldn’t watch by yourself. Go meet up with your fellow Gooners and be prepared to go hoarse form screaming for 90 minutes. Both clubs are riding high right now and both clubs are looking to make a statement. This is going to be a big one.

Come on you Gunners! 

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Kevin Mooney 30 Aug 2013