April 25, 2012
Our latest 'biggest game of the season' ended without the win we all hoped for, but we did pick up a point that could prove to be immensely valuable in the final run-in. We still own third place and will not lose our grip on it this weekend.
Despite the 0-0 score line, there were some definite positives in the game. First - and the most obvious - we picked up our fifth clean sheet in seven league games. As Thomas Vermaelen said, the simple fact thatthe defense has been stable in terms of personnel has been a boom to the squad's performances. Second - we did not lack for scoring opportunities. Some top saves by Peter Cech and that dastardly goal postwere the only things that kept us from the win. Third - while we did miss the stability of Mikel Arteta in the middle of the pitch, we did create.
But since this is Arsenal, there had to be some bad news mixed in there. Theo Walcott looks to be out for the season with a hamstring injury. Without a doubt, it is a tough loss for the remaining games, especially considering Newcastle, Spurs and Chelsea are all breathing down our necks.
And that is not a point that is missed by Arsène Wenger. When asked what the result means for his team's third-place hopes he responded, "What it means is that we have to win the rest of our games and we have to look at the results over the weekend as well." A wary eye will also be on Chelsea in this years Champions League final. If they win, but cannot grab fourth in the league, they supplant the fourth-placed team.
But no one is even thinking fourth. Kieran Gibbs noted that Arsenal's fate rests squarely in their own... erm... feet. "We have to finish the season strongly," he said."The way we see it is that if we win our three games then we secure our position. We have three cup finals left to play."
As if he could already hear the whinging from his detractors, Wenger stressed that third place will simplynot be good enough next season. Both he and Aaron Ramsey are hoping that a better start to the seasonnext year can be a springboard to that long-awaited silverware. And Andre Santos made it very clear what this team strives for. "This is a big club and deserves better. All we want are trophies."
But one Arsenal player will have to make some room in his trophy cabinet. Robin van Persie picked up a number of awards this week. First up was the PFA Player of the Year award. This is always especially nice for the winning player as it is an honor voted by his peers. Unsurprisingly, he also earned a spot in the PFA Team of the Year as the only representative from Arsenal. But the biggie came a couple of days later when he selected as Footballer of the Year by the Football Writers' Association. It's the first time win for an Arsenal player since Thierry Henry won the award in 2006. Congratulations captain. Oh and also? He flat out denied reports of a secret meeting with Barcelona.
Looking ahead, with just three games left in the 2011-12 season, we control our own fate to land third place in the league. No, it's not a trophy, but considering where we were seven months ago, it's no small feat. And yet, last season we looked to have a lock on third place in the final couple of game before things went awry and Man City pipped us for the automatic Champions League place.
That cannot happen this year. Newcastle sit three points behind us and Spurs are six back, but both clubs have a game in hand. A good result at Stoke, and we are step closer and on very solid footing to secure third. Anything less than a win and things get excruciatingly uncomfortable.
But Stoke, as we know all too well, are a tricky team to play on the road. We topped them 3-1 at Emirates back in October, but they beat us by the same score line at the Britannia around this time last year. That result seemed to effectively kill any momentum we built after beating Man United at home. The Boss believes we need at least two more wins to lock-up third. It strikes me that Saturday is as good a day as any to get the first.
Come on you Gunners!
- Kevin Mooney
April 18, 2012
This time of year, one line we always hear from managers and players from around the league that there is no such thing as an easy run-in. This usually comes up because as teams compete for the title or a spot a in Europe, pundits and fans are constantly looking at the opposition's remaining fixtures to see how easy they will have it.
For Arsenal, on paper things looked decent for the last eight games of the season. Sure, the list included Man City and Chelsea, but it also included six teams in the bottom half of the table - including three teams battling relegation. And that's the rub.
As we saw a couple of weeks back against QPR, clubs fighting for their top-flight lives become wily opponents. We saw that again on Monday with Wigan. When the Latics came to the Emirates, many fans - myself included - had visions of a big win. An emphatic stamp that we will tie up third place as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Roberto Martinez and Co. had different ideas.
Before 10 minutes had passed, the visitors had a 2-0 lead. And just after the second goal, Mikel Arteta left the pitch injured. Not a good way to start a game against a team that has been undeniably hot of late. Things looked up midway through the half when Thomas Vermaelen headed home a beautiful curling crossfrom Tomas Rosicky. Arsenal were back in it, and it would just be a matter of time... before the game ended with the same score line.
For Arsène Wenger, the reason was pretty clear. "I felt in the first half we had enough chances to come back to 2-2, but the second half we dropped our level... There was not enough petrol left in the tank anymore." But as our Stateside Gooner Chris Toronyi says, there are different kinds of fatigue, and Arsène said he wasn't sure which one it was - mental fatigue or physical fatigue.
The manager later insisted that Arsenal did not take Wigan lightly. "I wouldn't put it down to complacency, I just think the way we defended the first two goals was not acceptable," he told Arsenal Player. "I was still confident at 2-1 especially but unfortunately in the second half we did not have a lot to offer."
The disappointment of the loss was compounded with the injury to Arteta. The word on the street is that he picked up a rather nasty ankle injury, but the extent of the damage is still unknown. Meanwhile, the Boss also revealed that Jack Wilshere will not be returning this season. Nor will he line up for England in the Euros or for Great Britain in the Olympics - a "devastating" blow to the midfielder.
Hopefully this bad news won't damage the team spirit that has been building over the last several months.Both Wenger and Wojciech Szczesny spoke of the new dynamic within the squad and how it turned the season around. Although the manager went a little deeper and also suggested that the defensive play of the entire team also played a huge role in the revival.
As of course, did Robin van Persie. The captain ended a mini-slump against Wolves last week and scored his 27th league goal of the season - and 34th overall. We've known for years that Van Persie had the talent, but he even exceeded Wenger's lofty expectations this term. And as for that "dry spell" of four games? Van Persie wasn't worried. "That is part of football," he said. "We won all of those games apart from one, so it wasn't as if things went badly for us."
A big reason things didn't go badly was the stellar play of Rosicky. The Czech maestro has been playing the best football of his Arsenal career of late, as Man of the Match honors against Wigan showed. And with Arteta likely out for at least the Chelsea game, we'll need him to elevate his play even more.
Off the pitch this week, the manager made some interesting comments regarding officiating and the use of video technology. Wenger, a long-time advocate of using video said, "Video will help the referees, not question their authority. It will give them more credit, more authority and [produce] fewer mistakes." He also would like to see it used to help prevent diving. "We should have a superior committee of ethics that could still punish a player after a match," he said. "And if this committee could punish an obvious dive with a three-match ban, the players would not do it anymore."
Sounds simple and logical. Anyone want to place a bet on whether the ruling bodies will take his advice?
Why am I suddenly hearing crickets? Weird.
Next up is out latest biggest match of the season. Except this one REALLY is a big match: home against Chelsea. A win helps us keep a lock on third. Anything else opens a Pandora's box. Spurs and Newcastle are currently five points behind us with a game in hand. Chelsea, meanwhile, are two points behind them. It would be nice to keep a little bit of breathing room as we enter those final games of the season.
The big question mark, of course, is what kind of condition will the West Londoners be in this weekend? That game is sandwiched between a couple of minor matches against some Spanish team. As Johan Djourou points out, Arsenal cannot rely on a fatigued or unfocused Chelsea side. We need to play our game. We need the performance of the season. We need a loud and raucous crowd. We need three points.
Come on you Gunners!
- Kevin Mooney
April 12, 2012
Getting back on track after the loss to QPR, was not just a goal - it was a complete necessity. Our loss, coupled with a Spurs win the following day meant that our hold on third place was down to goal differential. Throw in wins for Newcastle and Chelsea even our grip on a Champions League place was significantly shakier than just a few days before.
But it's a funny old game isn't it?
A 1-0 win over Man City at the Emirates last weekend, paired with Wednesday's 3-0 win at Wolverhampton gave us some welcome breathing room in our quest for third. A five-point buffer with five games remaining isn't exactly insurmountable, but it's nothing to scoff at either.
Prior to the Man City game, Arsène Wenger was very clear about his view of the loss to QPR: it was a blip. And maybe it would serve as a reminder of what's at stake in the few remaining weeks as well as what the players need to do each and every game. He was also adamant that Arsenal needed to win the game - a draw simply wouldn't do.
But lest you think the Boss lacked confidence going into the clash with Citeh, you had better reconsider. "In the last eight games we have won seven, so the momentum should still be there," he said. "The QPR result was an interruption and a disappointment."
The momentum was indeed still there. Despite the tight scoreline, Arsenal simply dominated the game. The only offensive about the visitors' game was Mario Balotelli. And yes, that is a play on words. The Italian striker committed numerous fouls that were card-worthy, but somehow managed to stay on the pitch until after Mikel Arteta's stunning 87th minute strike finally put Arsenal ahead. Interestingly, as Josh James pointed out in his Behind the Numbers column this week, that goal means that Arsenal have scored against every other team in the Premier League, for the second season in a row.
Wenger, needless to say, was pleased. "It was a very well-taken goal," he said in his post-match press conference. "I think it gave us three points that we deserved because we had a consistent domination in the game." But showing that he had no intention to dwell on that performance, he later added, "This was a very big result and we have to have another one on Wednesday against Wolves."
Aside from Arteta's goal - let's see that again shall we? - one thing that really stood out at the City game was the crowd. Wojciech Szczensy was wowed on their energy. "It was fantastic," he said. "It was as good an atmosphere as there has been at the Emirates." And that's saying a lot. Despite the fact that I am only able to see Arsenal on TV, I could feel the energy emanating from the stands. And our good friend Chris Toronyi AKA Stateside Gooner backs that up in his latest blog post. In his words: "The singing and chanting continued to the final whistle. I'm telling you and will keep telling you that it was beyond comprehension for me. Emotionally spent."
But as ever, it wasn't ALL good news. Kirean Gibbs was replaced just before the hour mark, with what proved to be a "fatigued" groin. And about 10 minutes later, Laurent Koscielny picked up his 10th booking of the season. That means a two game ban for the Frenchman.
So heading into the trip to Molineux, we were suddenly down to two or our starting back four. No matter what a team's league position, that is never a good thing. And with Wolves - and Wigan - in a battle for their top-flight lives it was a bit worrying.
For about 11 minutes. That's how long it took for Robin van Persie to score the cheekiest of penalties - and in doing so tie a Premier League record - and for Theo Walcott to fire one home from the edge of the area. Yossi Benayoun put a cap on the evening by adding a third in the 69th minute. The score line probably should have been event greater, but as Wenger said after the game, we seemed set the handbrake a bit. In fact, Wolves very nearly got themselves back in it, but for a fantastic save by Szczesny. But in the end, Arsenal notched their ninth victory in 10 league matches, their fourth clean sheet in five games and 27 points out of a possible 30.
It's just the continuation of an epic turnaround. No Arsenal fan needs to be reminded where we were in September. And no one needs to be reminded that the job is not yet complete. "We've put in a big effort," said Mikel Arteta. "We are in a strong position now and we don't want to waste it. We had a setback at QPR and it says a lot for our spirit that we came straight back."
Looking ahead, Wigan comes to town on Monday hoping to keep their recent hot streak alive. The Latics may be sitting just above the relegation zone, but in their last four games, they beat Man United and Stoke at home, topped Liverpool on the road and only lost to Chelsea under extremely controversial circumstances. If those other teams stumbled simply because they were looking beyond Wigan, it is a lesson we must learn from. Chelsea at home may be just around the corner, but let's make it 30 from 33 before we start thinking about that.
Come on you Gunners!
- Kevin Mooney
April 4, 2012
The one bad thing about impressive winning streaks is that they inevitably end. It happened to The Invincibles and it was always going to happen to this Arsenal squad. The one thing many of us did not expect perhaps, was that it would be to Premier League strugglers QPR. Although there was some foreshadowing that could be the case. But we'll get to that.
Arsenal dominated early, but it was QPR that struck first. But Arsenal evened things up a few minutes before the break courtesy of Theo Walcott's 10th goal of the season. Despite a pitch that started the game in poor shape and was rapidly getting worse, Arsenal started the second half in command. We looked to have taken over the game when disaster struck. A Thomas Vermaelen slip gave Jamie Mackie the space to set up Samba Diakite for the go-ahead goal.
Another loss that was more or less directly attributable to a crummy pitch. Honestly, if you take away a few horrendous pitches over the last couple of months, we may still be in the Champions League and FA Cup.
Arsène Wenger, however, would not blame the state of the playing surface for the loss. "The pitch was bad," he said, "but it does not explain our performance. We did not create enough to win a football game." Still, he called it a reality check and later added, "We have to go back to basics; that means to win football games and win your fights first.
The loss erased the distance we built up over Spurs in the race for third. We still hold that posisition, but only on goal differential. But Robin van Persie for one is confident. "We have seven more games to play and I believe we can come third. It won't be easy, everyone is fighting for every point and our opportunity is next week."
It's that kind of confidence that earned him and Vermaelen praise from the manager. Wenger noted theirinfluence in the dressing room while complementing the team's spirit as a whole. He also stressed that confidence is the main reason that so many players have gotten on the score sheet this season.
In the annoying news department, we head to Nyon, Switzerland where UEFA suspended and fined Wenger for "improper conduct" following Arsenal's 3-0 win over Milan. The Boss said he would appeal that decision immediately. "I believe that when you have 25 years [experience] in Europe you can still ask the referee that you can have some discussion with him. It is very difficult to understand." More to come on this.
To brighten things up, we look to Thierry Henry. The Arsenal legend has been on a tear recently in MLS. He scored twice in the New York Red Bulls home opener against Colorado and bagged his first MLS hat-trick a week later. He also showed his immense class by sticking around after the 4-1 against Colorado Rapids to talk to Arsenal Supporters, pose for photos and sign autographs. The NYC Arsenal Supporters organized the post-game affair and put together a very nice write-up of the event, took dozens of beautiful photos and even produced a great video chronicling the day. Do check them out.
Looking ahead, Arsenal will look to rebound against Manchester City on Sunday. Citeh just squeaked by us back in December when they were riding high, but this time it's at the Emirates and they have been dropping points a bit lately. After leading the league for much of the season, they have slipped into second five points behind their cross-town rivals. They drew their last two matches away to Stoke and home to Sunderland. Still, they have an immense amount of stockpiled talent and will be itching to make up ground on Man United.
But as mentioned earlier, Arsenal are in a dogfight for third place. In addition to Man City, we also face Chelsea once more before the end of the season. And we will need every last point to ensure third place and direct qualification for next year's Champions League. This is undoubtedly a big, big game.
Come on you Gunners!
- Kevin Mooney
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