June 27, 2012

Remember when you were a kid and summer vacation just flew by? Despite having more free time than you could even dream about now, those lazy days were gone in the blink of an eye. Somehow it's already been over six weeks since the 2011/12 season came to a close and we are already less than three weeks away from Arsenal's first pre-season friendly. At least we already know what we are going to wear on the first day.

Perhaps part of the reason this off season seems to be winding down a bit faster than normal is because so much has been going on. Euro 2012 has taken up much of our attention. Almost immediately after the Premier League wrapped things up, 10 of our players were off to link up with their national teams. The opening round offered a surprising amount of entertainment and whittled the summer down by two weeks. And the quarter-finals and subsequent break lopped off another from the calendar.

It's been a bit of a tough go for Arsenal's representatives in the Euro. Among them, Robin van Persie's Dutch squad - a favorite to win the whole thing - didn't make it out of the group stage. Wojciech Szczesny was sent off in Poland's opening game and he never got a chance to play again. Laurent Koscielny only picked up one cap -- in France's loss to Spain. In fact, Arsenal are now down to just two players in the tournament, Germans Per Mertesacker and our new signing Lukas Podolski.  

Still, there were some very good moments. Van Persie scored for the Netherlands against Germany. Theo Walcott came off the bench to lead England to a 3-2 win over Sweden. And Podolski scored in his 100th international appearance for Germany.

Aside from providing some memorable moments, the Euro has had one other big effect on the off-season. It has served as a kind of de facto moratorium on player transfers. And it certainly makes sense why. Tournaments like these serve as a chance for a club to put a prized asset on display for the world to see, and hopefully raise his value. Nicklas Bendtner, for example, certainly raised his profile by scoring some impressive goals for Denmark - and then landing an impressive fine from UEFA for his ... erm ... impressive pants.

But now that the Euro is over for the majority of countries, the transfer market has gotten back on track. And Arsenal jumped in quickly. We signed the leading scorer from Ligue 1, Montpellier's Olivier Giroud. In the usual meet and greet with Arsenal.com, the French international discussed why he feels he'll fit in nicely. He's big, strong and good in the air - all nice attributes to be sure. But you also get the sense of humility and genuine excitement about joining the Club. Noted French football journalist Philippe Auclair gave his two cents to Arsenal.com and it's well worth a read.

And lest we forget our other early pick-up, Podolski is still in Eastern Europe but he's given notice that he is chomping at the bit to play for Arsène Wenger.  Our good friend Stateside Gooner Chris Toronyi discussed the early-summer moves, and needless to say he's excited by our new additions. There are obviously still a number of questions that need answering regarding the squad, but there is still plenty of time for that to shake out.

Well... not really plenty I suppose. As I said earlier, our first friendly right around the corner: we take on Anderlecht and Southampton on July 14th. Ten days later, the squad heads to Asia for three games, and then to Africa to take on the Nigerian national team in Abuja on August 5th. There are also a number of other friendlies involving an Arsenal XI mixed in. And a beautiful new pitch is growing in quite nicely at Emirates Stadium.

So rest up kids, school starts soon. And for me, it can't come soon enough.

Come back you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney


May 16, 2012

You can breathe now.

The 2011/12 Premier League season has come to a conclusion, and considering how Arsenal kicked things off, it really could not have ended much better.

Arsenal finished the opening month of the season reeling from a horrible 8-2 loss at Old Trafford. But some late additions just before the transfer window closed, and some much improved play, our beloved Club started to move up the table. By the end of the year, we made it into the top four. Three months later, we had fought our way into the top three.

As Arsène Wenger said before the season finale, "It has been the strangest season yet because there were changes all over throughout the season. It looked first of all like we were battling relegation and then at the last game of the season we are battling for a Champions League position."

And that last game of the season against West Brom proved to be an ulcer-producing affair. The hard-fought 3-2 win was full of quirky goals, goalkeeper miscues and perhaps a little bit of luck. Arsenal took the early lead via Yossi Benayoun, and then quickly lost it after the Baggies scored twice in the next 10 minutes. But Arsenal would respond before the break courtesy of an Andre Santos drive from the edge of the area.

Knowing that a win - and only a win - would do, Wenger went for more offense to start the second half, bringing on Theo Walcott for Tomas Rosicky. And 10 minutes later, Arsenal re-took the lead when Laurent Koscielny took advantage of a poorly punched ball by Marton Fulop.

But if you thought that goal would provide the momentum we needed to safely put the game away ... the home side had other ideas. West Brom poured on pressure in spurts throughout the second half, and right up to the very end. In fact, the play of the game was arguably in injury-time when a Kieran Gibbs tackle denied what could have been the death-blow for Arsenal's Champions League hopes.

While there is no third-place trophy, the position has immense benefits. Chief among them is a direct line to the Champions League group stages - the 15th consecutive trip for Arsenal. As Wenger pointed out after the match, "To be fourth is playing a qualifier, which every year is more difficult. Therefore just to be in the group stage straight away is fantastic."

So it may have been another trophyless season, but it did provide a rather strange sense of satisfaction. One that Wojciech Szczensy explained perfectly. "I don't think people believed we could finish third," he said. "Although I wouldn't have taken it before the season, given the circumstance and the start of the season I think we will take it and we are very pleased." 

And to make it even more pleasing? We finished ahead of our neighbors up the road. Again. Which Robin van Persie made clear was something his teammates were quite aware of. Most importantly, however, it means we do not have to sweat the result of this year's Champions League final. If Chelsea win, Tottenham are out next year. It almost enough to make you want to root for... Nope. Can't do it.

It will be fascinating to see how this season looks after a few years. It was certainly a stressful time to be a supporter, but Wenger sees it differently. "On a daily basis it was a very enjoyable season - even in the dark times," he said. "There is no worse situation as when you feel the players are not focused and not united or on board. But I always felt during the season the group was united and ready to fight."

This season also marked the last hurrah for one longtime Club fixture. Assistant Manager Pat Rice is officially off after 44 years of service to Arsenal. There is simply too much to say about the man to sum up his career in such a small space. So be sure to check out Arsenal.com's collection of interviews, videos and photos. A fitting tribute to an Arsenal legend.

While there are no more game on the schedule, our eyes are still looking ahead. It is sure to be a busy summer of football with a pre-season tour to Asia and Africa plus both the Euro 2012 and London Summer Olympics on tap. Many countries have already released their preliminary squads for the Euro, and Arsenal will have plenty of representation in the tournament.

One of those will be new signing Lukas Podolski. The German international can't wait to get started and discussed some of his reasons for joining Arsenal. He also posed for some photos in the brand new home kit that he will be sporting next season.

But will he be joined by any other new additions? The rumor mills have already been spinning at top speed, but as ever, Wenger remains coy. "I believe we have quite a big squad. It will be [our intention] to trim a little bit and if possible add one or two players." So there's your answer. Now we just need to wait and see if the question is will we sign players sooner or later?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, sit back and revel in this most remarkable of seasons. But don't go too far. Before you know it, pre-season will be upon us.

Good job you Gunners.

 - Kevin Mooney 


May 9, 2012

I've lost count of the number of times I have opened this blog by saying something along the lines of 'football is a funny old game.' But if there was ever a weekend that backed that claim up it was this past one. Going into our final home game of the season, all we needed to do was beat a couple of mid-table teams and third place in the Premier League - and all it brings you - was ours.  We wouldn't have to fret about our closest competitors fare, we would just need to worry about ourselves.

When Yossi Benayoun scored a birthday goal in the second minute, it looked like the perfect situation. We would win big, extend our lead over Spurs, Newcastle and Chelsea and everyone would have a pleasant, relaxed weekend.

But 25 minutes later that outlook completely changed. Two somewhat fluky goals by Norwich put all of our hopes for an easy summer in jeopardy. To make matters worse, Bacary Sagna was stretchered off after half an hour. We came agonizingly close to equalizing a couple of times, but we entered the break down by a goal.

In the second half, we could not be accused of failing to go for the win. Robin van Persie finally netted the equalizer in the 72nd minute. The Dutchman followed that up eight minutes later with his 30th league goal of the season to put Arsenal ahead.

Joy! Rapture! Pain.

Within five minutes, Norwich equalized. We ended the day with a single point, our fate was out of our hands, and every Arsenal supporter around the world had a less enjoyable Saturday.

And Arsène Wenger was not happy about that. Not one bit. Immediately after the game, he didn't mince words. "We were absolutely poor defensively today." And in his post match press conference, he said, "The quality of our first half was absolutely not at the level we wanted in a decisive game like that."

He also lamented his team's missed goalscoring opportunities saying "When you look at the chances we created, it is absolutely unbelievable that we scored only three goals."  When asked about his feelings on Arsenal's chances to finish third he responded, "I have no gut feeling about it, I am just gutted today."


But then ... Sunday. Newcastle lost. Villa held Spurs to a draw. And we were right back where we started.

The rest of the week had a decidedly Teutonic vibe about it. First off, we heard a lot more about Lukas Podolski. Wenger feels that the Cologne striker will help ease the scoring burden on van Persie - who put his stamp of approval on the signing. They both praised Podolski's versatility, with Wenger saying that quality made him "an obvious choice" and great fit for Arsenal. In fact, Wenger suggested that German players in general can be a good fit in England.

Poldi's Germany teammate Per Mertesacker is understandably excited by the signing as well. He praised Podolski's confidence and physical strength, and echoing Wenger's sentiments about goal scoring said, "when we needed a goal he was always there."  But perhaps more interesting was Mertesacker's insight on the little things. He cited Arsenal's closed training sessions which allow players to concentrate on their game more than in the media-frenzy that is German football.

Continuing with Mertesacker, the giant defender looks to be almost back to full fitness after going down to an ankle injury way back in February. He still isn't entirely sure how he sustained the injury, but the important is that he's back doing some ball work and is health enough to have already been named in Germany's preliminary squad for Euro 2012.

Other countries have started to release their squad's as well, but one name you definitely won't see anywhere is Sagna. The injury he picked up against Norwich turned out to be a fractured fibula. He'll miss all of the Euros, but hopefully will be fully recovered in time for the pre-season.

With the close season approaching, there was plenty of off the pitch news as well. Arsenal introduced the new home kit for the 2012/13 season. The design's origin stem from the one and only Herbert Chapman. It is currently available on pre-order and will be in stores on June 7th.

The Club also announced the second leg of the pre-season tour. Following games in Kuala Lampur, Beijing and Hong King, Arsenal will play a pre-season game in the Nigerian capital of Abuja on August 5th.

Back in Britain, the big news was that West Brom's Roy Hodgson was named England manager. The interesting quirk is that the Baggies are our final opponent for the season. The question is, will his final game with WBA have any impact on the game? Wenger doesn't think so. And hopefully that's the case.

Hodgson has done a great job with West Brom, who currently sit 10th in the League. Their recent run of form is quite good - 3-1-2 since the start of April - and they will be looking to finish the season in the top half of the table.

For weeks - months even - we have all known that Arsenal's next game is the biggest of the season. But this time there is no doubt and no argument.  A win and we finish third, guarantee ourselves Champions League football, and can both congratulate ourselves on a remarkable turnaround and breathe a huge sigh of relief that we made it through the most challenging season in years. Anything else and we could be staring at a very complicated summer.

We've had several opportunities to seal the deal in recent weeks and have fallen just short. But there is no point in looking back at the regrets and missed opportunities of this memorable season. Now is the time to have faith in our Club. Now is the time focus in one direction. And as it turns out, Arsenal's 125th anniversary crest points the way in a single word: Forward.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney


May 2, 2012

And now things get REALLY interesting.

Although we didn't exactly get the result we were hoping for at Stoke, the point we picked up in the 1-1 draw on Saturday was immensely important. A quick look at the League table and fixture list tells us that point could be the difference between third and fifth going into next weekend. Yes, a three-point buffer would be preferable, but the alternative is none too pleasing.

Going into the game at Stoke, above all else, we knew that it was going to be a tricky game. Arsène Wenger said, "We know what is at stake and we know that Stoke is always a difficult opponent for us." Carl Jenkinson added, "I think it is fair to say that most teams struggle with the physical side that Stoke have." 

And Arsenal are no exception. Despite dominating the game from the outset, Stoke took an early lead off a Peter Crouch header that came practically out of nowhere. But within six minutes the game was level courtesy of Robin van Persie's 28th league goal of the season. We continued to create numerous chances throughout the first half and deep into the second. Yossi Benayoun looked to draw a pretty clear penalty in the 74th minute, but the referee thought otherwise.

Although his team missed out on an opportunity to firm their grip on third place, Wenger was understandably happy to secure the point. However, he was quick to say that Arsenal received a good bit of help that day. "The good result we got was that Newcastle dropped points today," he said in his post-match press conference. "But for us it is important to win our next two games."

And if we're going to do that, Wenger thinks that the man who got us to this point will also have to be the one to "push us over the line." Of course, he's referring to Van Persie. The manager has nothing but praise for his captain, and has no doubts that earning the captaincy played a big role in his incredible season. "He took his role seriously on and off the pitch and I think it added something to his determination as well. That is why maybe his commitment was even stronger - because he feels more responsibility. He grew into this role."

Six points will guarantee third place. It's as simple as that. As for the rest of the League, nothing is simple. The Manchester twins are even on points at the top of the table and six teams are in the relegation zone, or dangerously close to it. Not only that, but the remaining cup competitions will have big ramifications on the Premier League's representatives in Europe.

Virtually every year, try as we might, when we hit the final few games, our eyes begin to wander and we steal glances at next season. Our imaginations begin to wander as we think about summer transfers and all the ridiculous rumor and innuendo that comes with it. But this year, we actually have an excuse for that. Arsenal announced on Monday morning that we have reached a deal to sign FC Cologne striker Lukas Podolski. The Germany international has had a fantastic season in the Bundesliga, scoring 18 goals in 30 appearances, and his international record is well-known. As former Gunner Tony Woodcock says, "he ticks all the boxes - right age, right price, great experience."

And as the Boss said, "he will provide us with good attacking options." It's just a great move, and it will be interesting to see what it means for some current Gunners. Especially those who are out on loan. Wenger says that he plans to discuss the future with players like Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela, but brings up the point that Premier League squad restrictions could force his hand as much as anything else.

Drawing out eyes a bit closer in, we can look ahead to our final home game of the season, a lunchtime kickoff against Norwich on Saturday. The Canaries have had a very decent first season back in the top-flight, and we only managed a 2-1 win at Carrow Road back in November. But they have struggled offensively in their last few games, failing to score against Liverpool and Blackburn, and losing 6-1 to Man City at home. Regardless, this is an absolute must-win for Arsenal. And not just so the' Lap of Appreciation' is an upbeat affair.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney


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30 Jun 2012