August 30, 2012

One of the matchdays no Arsenal fan ever seems to look forward to is the trip to Stoke. Our recent history explains why as does a quick glance at the Potters home record. They dropped only four games at home in 2011/12, which is pretty solid for any Premier League club. However, of those remaining 15 games, eight were draws and their home goal differential was plus-5.

Why am I digging up old statistics? It just goes to show that a goalless draw at the Britannia Stadium is far from rare. Still, we had a fair number of scoring chances. Lukas Podolski came close in the first half, as did Santi Cazorla. Olivier Giroud also just missed what would have been a truly remarkable debut goal. All this and Arsenal's defense kept the home side at bay virtually the entire game.

All we need now are goals. And Arsène Wenger is certain they will come. After the match he was asked what was missing up front for his team. "It is an understanding," he responded. "Because you have Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud... one month ago they didn't know each other. So that will come."

He later added, "I put it down to having new strikers and as well because we have played defensive teams who are very well organised - Sunderland and now Stoke." New strikers, he says, take a bit longer to settle in with a new team than other positions.

One of those strikers echoed that sentiment. "I am ambitious but everywhere I go I need a little adjustment time before I am completely integrated," said Giroud. But the Frenchman insists that it's not something that will take very long. "There are a lot of good players here at Arsenal. It is easy to play with them. We need a little more time to come together."

In fact, that was the common takeaway from the side. Thomas Vermaelen put things in perspective. "Coming to England is not easy and you have to adapt," he said. "That is especially true when your second game is away at Stoke." The captain also pointed out one very big positive: that two consecutive 0-0 draws also translates into two straight clean sheets.

Despite this well reasoned logic, many in media and on the web could only focus on the lack of goals. So with the end of the transfer window upon us, all eyes are fixed on reporters with many mobile phones and people talking out open car windows. A few loan moves have been sealed this week, as well as the sale of Henri Lansbury to Nottingham Forest. Will there be any more ins? The manager says he has a "clear idea" of what he wants to do and that he is still in the market for new players, but he insists that " We will only take players who have something special." And that is especially true for any potential signing in midfield.

The other big news was the Champions League draw that took place this morning. Arsenal landed in Group B against Schalke, Olympiacos and Montpellier. Certainly not an easy group, but most importantly, the travel is not too bad. No long flights to eastern Russia or Ukraine. The group stage commences on September 18th in Montpellier and closes on December 4th with a trip to Athens.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is the small matter of this weekend's trip to Anfield. Liverpool was pummeled at West Brom in the opener, and drew Man City at home after gifting them a late goal. But much like Arsenal, they are better than their record suggests. It's truly the start of a big, big month for Arsenal. Here's to a strong September.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

August 23, 2012

After a summer of high profile football tournaments, the excitement of big transfer news, the bitter disappointment of other transfer news, plus the usual predictions, speculation and innuendo, the 2012/13 season is underway. And there was much rejoicing!

The game against Sunderland was decidedly mixed. The downside came from the scoreline: a 0-0 draw at home against a team most feel we should have been able to put away. But aside from that tiny detail, there was much more to be excited about than to fret over. Among them:

Santi Cazorla: our latest signing is good. Very good. Within 10 minutes of his Arsenal debut, he showed a willingness to shoot from distance and was downright magical in his passing and movement. Arsène Wenger says he could easily be "one of the buys of the season." He also took home man-of-the-match honors.

Gervinho: The Ivorian's is looking to improve on his first season at the Emirates, and so far so good. He shone during pre-season, and picked up where he left off, showing great skill on the ball and made some very incisive passes.

Abou Diaby: Before I say anything let's all knock on wood, turn around three times, throw salt over our shoulder and maybe even swing a dead cat over our heads at midnight in a cemetery. All set? He's looking like a very different player than we have seen over the past few seasons. He's looking much more like the player we have known he could always be if he could just stay fit.

Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud: Both players still need some fitness, but early signs look good. Poldi made his presence known several times in the first half, and Giroud looks to have a knack for getting in scoring position. Wenger has no doubt the German will thrive once he adapts and the Frenchman is very confident he will make a difference while insisting he is a very different player to... um... what was his name again?

Per Mertesacker: The very tall German played his first game for Arsenal since doing his ankle against the same Sunderland team on what appeared to be a green-colored lunar surface at the Stadium of Light last season. His positioning looked good and he did a fine job of cleaning up a couple of potential messes.

I could go on about the positives, but Arsène summed up the few negatives pretty succinctly in the post-match press conference. "Our basic fitness is alright but we lack sharpness and fluency at the moment to be dangerous in the final third. The few chances we had, we couldn't convert them." The Boss was also a bit disappointed that we dropped points considering how much of a possession advantage we had.

Immediately after the game, supporters were hit with some not-so-surprising news. Arsenal announced that Alex Song would be heading off to Barcelona. The 24-year-old midfielder made 204 appearances for Arsenal, and made huge strides over the years. Wenger said that he is looking to bring in one more midfielder before the transfer window closes - but not necessarily as a direct replacement for Songinho. Francis Coquelin has filled the holding role in the past and insists he is ready to step up to the starting XI.

Wenger also suggested that he could bring in another defender as well, which might be needed now that Kyle Bartley has moved on. Arsenal reached a deal to sell the former reserves captain to Swansea, leaving a potential opening at the back. Nineteen-year-old Spaniard Ignasi Miquel is still an option but a loan move for him is still possible.

If a new defender does arrive, he is sure to be pleased with the new coaching set-up at Arsenal. Players are raving about Steve Bould's defensive work in training. In the Matchday program Kieran Gibbs said, "Steve has obviously brought a defensive emphasis to the team, because he was a defender too, and he's bringing all his experience and knowledge of the game to us." That's exactly what fans and pundits alike were hoping for.

It also can't hurt that Arsenal's new captain is a central defender. I remember a conversation with former Arsenal fullback Bob McNab, in which I asked him which position a captain should ideally play. Without hesitating he said central defender. Thomas Vermaelen has expressed pride in getting the armband and we've seen the passion and leadership he shows on the pitch. This should be a very nice fit.

Looking ahead, on Sunday Arsenal visit our dear friends from Staffordshire. Hopefully we'll see what some of our new signings can do, but Tony Pulis' side is a beast unlike any other in the Premiership. Arsenal earned a draw against the Potters at the Britannia Stadium last season, which is not a bad result by any means.

Look for the home team to play a very defensive-minded game with attacks coming via the long ball or free-kicks and throw-ins toward Peter Crouch. The height of Mertesacker and Diaby could come in very handy. Meanwhile, Arsenal will likely need to go wide on the attack to break down Stoke's defense, so it could be very interesting to see how the Boss uses Cazorla and whether Giroud gets a chance to show off his aerial skills.   

It's going to be a good one. Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

August 16, 2012

Let's just get the obvious out of the way quickly. The Club announced yesterday that terms have been agreed with Manchester United for the transfer of Robin van Persie. He has left camp and traveled to Old Trafford for the customary medical so it's just a matter of time before that chapter is officially closed.

Right. Moving on.

Arsenal played their final warm-up to the new season on Sunday - a 4-0 win over German club FC Cologne. It was a homecoming -- and send off -- for Lukas Podolski who signed from the Billy Goats early this summer. And he put on a show. After Thomas Vermaelen put Arsenal up by one in the opening minutes, the German international put away a penalty and a rocket of a goal just before the break. He later would describe his second of the day as "the kind of goal Arsenal fans can expect from me."

I'll take that.

Gervinho added the fourth midway through the second half, closing the book on an impressive pre-season for the Ivorian. Add to the impressive scoreline, the game was an excellent showcase for the new players. Santi Cazorla's crisp and creative passing stood out in the first half, as well as the number of quality shots by Olivier Giroud. Needless to say, the expectations have ticked up.

Later in the week we heard quite a bit from the players regarding what they are expecting of themselves and what supporters can look forward to this season. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain says that he aims to excite the fans with what he can, but at the same time insists that the team performance comes first. The 19-year-old also reflected on the year he has spent at the Club, but with an eye toward the future. "It's been a brilliant start to my Arsenal career," he told Arsenal Player. "But it is only a tiny section of it and I hope to improve massively on what I have done to keep getting better and better if possible."

Sharing that sentiment was Laurent Koscielny. After making huge strides last season, the French defender is determined to get even better this season. "You know I like to be tactical and technical in my position, but I have worked hard to be fitter and stronger." He admits he has become a much more physical player since arriving in the Premier League, and that is definitely a big reason he has gone from playing in Ligue 2 to becoming one of the top defenders in Europe in just three years.

Giroud -- his former teammate at Tours -- is about to make that same jump. "He was a great player then," Koscielny said of his once-again teammate. "Now he is even more confident and scores a lot of goals. I know his qualities and he will give a lot for us. I know he has the physical quality to play in this league."

Even with the departure of Van Persie, Arsène Wenger belives that the addition of Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski make his squad noticeably stronger than last season.

Part of that strength stems from Arsène's new assistant manager Steve Bould. Likely new captain Thomas Vermaelen says the new No 2's meticulous coaching methods will be key to improvement this term. "He is very focused on details," the Belgian said. "A lot of players, because we are getting older, we know how to play. But he looks at details and the shape of your body and to be honest I am learning a lot from him."

And that's all you can really ask for.

Looking ahead, Arsenal kicks off the new season at home on Saturday against Sunderland. Martin O'Neill tuned the Black Cats around last season after taking over from Steve Bruce in December. Arsenal won both league games last season, but dropped the FA Cup tie at the Stadium Light. O'Neill's sides can never be called pushovers, but if Arsenal can avoid defensive errors and the offense continues with the form we showed against Cologne, the result should be a positive one.   

Say it with me... Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

August 9, 2012

Normally being taunted by three games in the span of a week, and then having to wait - almost international break style - for the next match would be excruciating. But not this time. No siree, Bob.

For a while now supporters have been watching the wires (and Arsenal.com) for final word on Santi Cazorla. Arsène Wenger reportedly tried to sign the Spanish international from Villarreal last summer but was "gazumped by a swoop" (how's that for transfer window speak?) from nouveau riche Malaga CF. But this week, he finally got his man.

The 27-year-old attacking midfielder could not contain his excitement in joining the Gunners. "One always dreams of playing for a big club and now I am going to have the chance to do so," Cazorla said. "Everyone has told me that I am going to see a difference from the clubs where I have played before and Arsenal."

Who was everyone, you ask? How about Robert Pires and Cesc Fabregas? "[Pires] told me it was a very good club and I was going to enjoy London, the city and the move," Cazorla recalled. "The same with Cesc Fabregas. He said this was a big club and that I was going to be very happy here, he said I would adapt easily. And I can feel that."

So that makes the third big player this summer to do all the poses in the new Arsenal kit. Just to recap, we have now signed a vastly experienced and high scoring German international in Lukas Podolski, last season's top scorer from Ligue 1 in Olivier Giroud and now a versatile playmaker and two-time Euro winner in Cazorla.

There is always a big concern with bringing in this kind of talent, namely how will they fit in with the rest of the squad? So far so good according to Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard raved about Cazorla's abilities, and even jumped in on his compatriot's photo shoot. But Arteta also noted how impressed he was at how well the other two signings are fitting in. "They are looking good in training and getting on really well with the other players. They're confident and making jokes." I'm still cracking up over Poldi's "German organization" comment during the trip to Nigeria.

As we welcome Cazorla, we also big a (temporary) farewell to Benik Afobe. The Englishman headed off to Bolton for a season-long loan this week, and he didn't take long to make an impact. In his second appearance with the Championship side, Afobe netted a hat-trick - as a second half substitute. Considering how well Arsenal players have done on loan under Owen Coyle in recent seasons, this could be a season to watch.

Staying on the topic of Arsenal's youngsters, Terry Burton's boys played twice in the last week. The first match was a disappointing 2-1 loss to Conference side Dartford. Three days later, they hammered Chesham United 6-2. Despite the very different results, Burton found good things to say about both games. Mainly it's about giving the players a chance to see what they can do and work out some of the early kinks.

Meanwhile, the first team is in Germany for a quick training camp ahead of Sunday's game against Podolski's former club FC Cologne. There is no definitive word on who will play, but a look at some of the photos from the training camp gives an idea of who could feature. All three of the new signings are there along with Arsenal's 17-year-old German wunderkind Serge Gnabry. The winger just signed his first professional contract and is looking to make the most of his "big chance" in Germany.

After that, it's less than one week until Sunderland and the start of the 2012/13 season. Excited yet?

Stay tuned Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

August 1, 2012

Euro 2012 - check.

Markus Liebherr Cup - check.

Asia Tour - check.

The off-season is beginning to wind down and anticipation for the 2012/13 season is beginning to heat up. Arsenal returned from their summer tour to Malaysia, Beijing and Hong Kong on Monday - less than three weeks before the opening game against Sunderland.

All in all, you'd have to see the tour was pretty successful. Sure, we only won one game , but when you consider who was left behind, the odd mix of players on the pitch and the how many youngsters got a chance to play the image becomes a lot more positive.

The second game of the tour was the big one - Manchester City at the Bird's Nest in Beijing. The scoreline finished in Citeh's favor, but apart from three ugly minutes at the end of the first half, Arsenal was the dominant team on the pitch. Theo Walcott was lively in the first half and Chuks Aneke impressed as soon as he came on the pitch halfway through the second half. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also showed his influence with a shot that came about as close as you can possibly get to scoring without actually crossing the line.

Arsène Wenger didn't dwell much on the two conceded goals. "Overall what is important for us is to see everybody play and give everybody competition," he said after the match. "We lasted 90 minutes at quite a good level." He also pointed out that Roberto Mancini's side played a very defense-oriented game, while Arsenal was more focused on offense and seeing what the player's were capable of.

One of the hot topics of this pre-season is the fitness of Abou Diaby. The Frenchman made it through the first half unscathed and really looks to have something to offer this season. If - of course - he can stay healthy. To that he said, "I know that when I am fit, I can be good on the pitch. My main target this season is to be fit and if I am then everything will be good for me."

And hopefully for Arsenal.

Almost immediately after the game, the team hopped on a plane and headed to Hong Kong. Over the years, Arsenal fans have become used to some rather light opposition during pre-season. Remember the 7-1 win against SC Columbia? How about the 10-2 drubbing of a Burgenland XI? So many might be thinking of these sorts of games when we lined up against Kitchee in Hong Kong. Turns out Kitchee won their domestic treble last year and have a pretty solid team. Solid enough that they took an early lead. Theo Walcott equalized halfway through the first half - assisted tremendously by Diaby - before Kitchee re-took the lead a few minutes later.

As expected, Wenger made a boat-load of substitutions in the second half. Among them was Gervinho who flew out of the gate and finished with a well-deserved man of the match award. His fantastic passing set up Thomas Eisfeld's 77th minute equalizer.

Again Wenger was less concerned with the result than he was with preparations for the season. Fitness, he implied was his chief concern. "We wanted to prepare physically and we got what we wanted because we have no injuries. We played a good game."

Still, he has his concerns. "I think defensively we looked fragile, especially in the first half," the Boss said after the Kitchee game. "Defensively we have a lot of work to do as a unit to do much better."

And now that the team is back home, that is a big part of their focus. Wojciech Szczesny pointed this out specifically. "Steve Bould has been doing some fantastic work with the defense. That seems to be working very well. It all makes me believe we'll be that little bit stronger."

When it comes down to out, that may be all we really need.

Looking ahead, the next scheduled game is a pre-season homecoming for Lukas Podolski when Arsenal travel to Cologne on August 12th. But word on the street is that the Club are looking for a closed-door friendly and a trip away from Olympics-mad London before then. As ever, stay tuned to Arsenal.com for the details as they emerge.

Rest up Gooners, the season is about to get going!

- Kevin Mooney

 

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Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 31 Aug 2012