November 30, 2012

In football, things don't get any closer than a draw. One shot, a few inches or a little luck could separate those teams and result in one them leaving the pitch with two extra points. And when your team is not a beneficiary of one of those things, it's frustrating.

But in the wake of two draws this week - away to both Aston Villa and Everton - a small, but important fact is being overlooked. Arsenal are currently on a decent unbeaten run - four games in the Premier League and six games overall. Despite that, many in the media and blogosphere are talking screaming "crisis!" and you'd think that Arsenal are languishing near the relegation zone having racked up significantly more losses than league-leading Man United.

Actually, both have three. And we're five points from third.

It's undeniable that draws are generally frustrating. Look at the Villa game. They sat third from bottom. They are near the top of the conceded goals list. Throughout the game they never looked like much of a scoring threat. So when it ended in a scoreless draw it was understandable that Arsenal supporters were a bit wound up - hey the boss was upset too!

After the match Arsène Wenger explained what went wrong. "We controlled them quite well. I think we had room to win the game but we lacked a little bit of accuracy in our final ball." He went on to point out that despite only having one shot on target, Arsenal fired around a dozen shots. But as Kieran Gibbs said,we could have been a bit more ruthless in the final third - a bit more conviction would have put us over the top. So again, the difference between a win and a draw is an incredibly fine line.

Against Everton in the mid-week match, that fine line briefly looked more like a six-lane highway. Theo Walcott, back from injury, scored in the opening minute. But the Toffees bounced back and equalized before the half was over. The game was played at torrid pace and at several points in the second half was end-to-end. Big saves by Wojciech Szczesny and a narrow miss by Olivier Giroud saw the two clubs share the points.

The manager again suggested that some slightly better finishing could have made the difference. "We had a few good chances in the first half where we didn't play the final ball," he said. "In the second half as well, on two or three counter attacks we really could have been a bit more clinical. But I cannot fault the spirit and the effort we put in."

A big part of that spirit has come from Theo. That opening goal was his 10th of the season - one fewer than last year and just three away from his career high. He's leading the team in scoring, but unlike last year, he isn't miles ahead of the other players. Giroud and Lukas Podolski each have seven goals and Gervinho and Santi Cazorla aren't far behind with five and four respectively.

That firepower will be key in the upcoming weeks. Arsenal have some very important games against some surprisingly tough competition. First up is Saturday against Swansea. The Swans sit just one point behind Arsenal and are coming off of a big win over fourth-place West Brom. Arsenal will be without the services of Laurent Koscielny who had to be pulled from the Everton game and is likely to miss at least three weeks with a thigh injury. Bacary Sagna also picked up a knock and is a big doubt for Saturday. But Arsenal could see the long-awaited return of Tomas Rosicky, who made the bench against Everton. Arsène noted that Rosicky has the ability to speed things up on the pitch, so he could be just what the doctor ordered against Swansea.

Swansea have been very possession-oriented in the last few years, but under Michael Laudrup they have added a direct style to their game. So when two teams expect to dominate possession, what gives? Expect another tight game. Perhaps even similar to last year when Arsenal won 1-0 on a scrappy goal by Andrey Arshavin.

Beyond that, Arsenal have a series of games that could arguably be labeled as "must win". A trip to Olympiacos on Tuesday could be the difference between first or second in their Champions League group. Next Saturday's home game pits them against the aforementioned fourth-place Baggies. And then it's a trip to Yorkshire to take on Bradford in the Capital One Cup. These games could end up being season-defining. Hopefully that one shot, bit accuracy or touch of luck will be with us.

Come on you Gunners! 

- Kevin Mooney


November 23, 2012

After a week when the head of many a Gooner was hanging low, leave it to our friends up the Seven Sisters Road to help put all of us in a much better mood. The month of November - as it has so often - came in and left us in its wake. The loss at Old Trafford was followed by two disappointing draws - each which saw us drop valuable points after building 2-0 leads.

But then ... Tottenham. Dear old Tottenham! Despite the derby starting ugly courtesy of an Emmanuel Adebayor goal, Arsenal completely turned the game around before the first half was over. Adebayor was sent off for a studs-up tackle on Santi Cazorla, and about five minutes later, Per Mertesacker evened the score with his first-ever Arsenal goal. Lukas Podolski managed to nudge the ball across the line three minutes before the break, and Olivier Giroud doubled the lead in first-half stoppage time.

Sant Cazorla padded the lead at the hour mark with a fantastic strike on a Podolski cross and Arsenal looked to be running away with the match. Gareth Bale had other ideas and brought Spurs back within two goals 19 minutes from time. But Arsenal pulled themselves together and all but killed the game even before Theo Walcott grabbed his ninth of the season in injury time.

Needless to say, Arsène Wenger was thrilled with the performance. One of the key points he discussed in the post-match presser was that victory was in no way assured when Spurs went down to 10 men. Since they had the lead, "they could have dropped back and waited for us," he said. "But we had the quality and movement to play through their lines and create chances."

Theo Walcott praised his team's "ruthless" display and spoke of confidence within the squad. Despite a great deal of talk that the squad was down in the doldrums, Theo insisted that the confidence was always there. Still, he said, "But this was a massive win for us." Mertesacker echoed the notion, and added that coming from behind in this fashion will help the team down the road: "It's very good for the team that we can stick together and cope with different moments... hopefully it will force us to the next level."

So after getting back on track in the Premier League, the next step was to get back on track in Europe. While Arsenal were still very much in a strong position to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the 13th straight year, anything but a win against Montpellier would make that progression all the more difficult. Laurent Koscielny came close in the 10th minute, but after that Arsenal's chances were limited throughout the first half. But in the second half, things markedly improved. Jack Wilshere notched his first goal in nearly two years and Lukas Podolski scored off a wonder-volley just after the hour mark as Arsenal cruised to the 2-0 win.

The goal was stunning. Podolski said after the match that it was one of his most special goals ever. And that's coming from a guy who has 44 goals for Germany and 98 in his club career. Although Bacary Sagna said it's something the German does in training all the time. Regardless, it's fantastic to see Poldi grab goals - and he says now that he has finally acclimated to playing two games per week, he's looking forward to scoring a lot more.

Schalke managed to pick up a 1-0 win against Olympiacos keeping them at the top of Group B, but Champions League match being what it is, that result guaranteed Arsenal passage to the next round. We now sit one point behind the German side, which means a win in Athens on December 4th combined with Montpellier getting a result at home against Schalke would see us finish at the top of the group.

Regarding that next game, the boss said "We'll play to win -- to finish top of the group. If you look at some groups, you don't really know if it is better to finish first or second. But statistically it is still better [to finish top]." Arsène went on to say that he believes Arsenal will finish top and that he is convinced that Montpellier will at least get a point in their final match. The draw for the round of 16 takes place on December 20th with the first legs coming in mid-February.

There was also some big news off the pitch. On Friday morning the Club revealed that they had extended the sponsorship deal with Emirates for another five years. With that guaranteed annual cash boom it makes you wonder if there are some big plans for the next two transfer windows.

Looking ahead, Arsenal head up to the Midlands to take on Aston Villa on Saturday. The Villains are having a touch go this season and currently sit 18th in the league. Only the bottom two clubs of Southampton and QPR have conceded more goals this season so if Arsenal can keep up with their recent form, things look quite promising. That said Villa Park is never an easy place to play and they can be a dangerous team with Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor up front and Darren Bent available on the bench. Arsenal also have a mid-week League game to look forward to - a tricky match at Goodison Park on Wednesday. With Everton playing very well and holding onto fourth place, that game is certain to be a big challenge. Keep the fingers and toes crossed - this is a big, big week.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney


November 9, 2012

It's roller coaster time in North London again.

After the stunning comeback against Reading, Arsenal were looking to build on that second half momentum, while perhaps exorcising some demons from last season's 8-2 loss away to Manchester United. One might expect that that loss would still be on the minds of the players involved, but Arsène Wenger revealed before the match that he and his players actually moved on quickly and didn't dwell on it.

But any hopes of a triumphant return were dashed when we slumped to a 2-1 loss on Saturday. The manager didn't conceal his disappointment after the match, pointing out his side's lack of efficiency in the final third. "We had a lot of the ball but they created more chances and deserved to win the game."

It was just a really odd game. United certainly didn't dominate but as the Boss said, Man Utd did what it took to win. Even Santi Cazorla's late strike provided some mixed feelings. On one hand, it was a merely a last-second consolation goal. But on the other hand his goal out of nowhere showed that it would not have taken much more for Arsenal to pull out a draw - or even a win. And that's especially true when you consider we played the final 20 minutes with 10 men after Jack Wilshere picked up a second yellow card.

But a loss is a loss and our recent form and results have been a far cry from earlier in the season. As the manager said as much prior to the next game,"[Our form] is a concern because we had a very promising start and of course we have gone through a difficult spell." Although he did later add, "Even if the situation is serious, it is not dramatic. It is only down to us to conquer."

And in the first half against Schalke, Arsenal looked a different team. We flew out of the gates and built a 2-0 lead, courtesy of goals from Theo Walcott's - his 50th for the Club - and a close range header from the "goal-obsessed": Olivier Giroud. Unfortunately, a determined Schalke got one back before halftime and equalized midway through the second and Arsenal had to settle for the 2-2 draw in the Champions League Group B match.

Picking up an away point in the group stage is never a bad thing. It just stings a bit when you had a chance to grab all three. "I felt that overall we played reasonably well," Wenger said afterwards, "but dropped physically in the second half." Why such a drop off? The team news page offers a suggestion as thatmysterious injury bug has once again reared its ugly little head. Although far from as bad as we have seen in recent years, we currently find ourselves lacking a starting left back and a great deal of depth in central midfield and on the wing.

Wilshere pointed out another interesting tidbit after the Schalke trip. The players are still figuring each other out. "I had never played with Mikel Arteta. And he's been at Arsenal a year," he said. "I think you can see already that we're gelling. A couple of months ago none of the new boys even knew each other or the rest of the squad, but I think good players just fit in." And as players like Tomas Rosicky - who has returned to training - and About Diaby step back in, the balance will be restored and competition for places will be fierce. And that can only be seen as a good thing.

Looking ahead, the fixture congestion really gets going. Arsenal host Fulham on Saturday and then a number of players -- including newly called up England right back Carl Jenkinson - head out for some mid-week international friendlies, followed by four games in 12 days. Arsenal will be without the services of Wilshere (suspension) on Saturday and of the walking wounded, only Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and maybe - maybe - Wojciech Szczesny even have a chance of making the squad.

As for Fulham, they are proving to be a very good side this season and they are the third-highest goal scoring team in the league this season. But as they sit one place behind Arsenal in the table, you can guess that they do concede a fair amount of goals - especially on the road. Wenger said in his press conference that a good atmosphere at the Emirates is dependent on his team's performance. And he wants a really good atmosphere this weekend. We could be in for some goals, folks.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney


November 2, 2012

To say Arsenal had a rough couple of weeks would be an understatement. A 1-0 loss at Carrow Road to Norwich was immediately followed by a brutal 2-0 loss at home to Schalke in the Champions League. Arsenal needed to turn things around, and do it quickly!

The medicine came in the form of the Premier League's bottom club, QPR. While few were expecting any kind of blow out following the previous results, most were hopeful for a positive result. And we got it. We just had to wait a bit as QPR played tough and Julio Ceasar played the way he did in his years at Inter.

We did get a lift right off the bat with news that both Bacary Sagna and Jack Wilshere would not only play, but both would start the game. The big question was, how would the two fare in their return? Sagana played the full 90 minutes and Jack put in more than one hour - and picked up man of the match honors.

In the end,  the game's heroes ended up being two guys that started on the bench. Theo Walcott replaced Wilshere and immediately provided a threat from the right flank. And after Andrey Arshavin replaced an injured Gervinho, Arsenal played like a different team. The scoreless draw was finally broken in the 87thminute when Arshavin's chip was met by Olivier Giroud. The striker's header was saved by Ceasar, but Mikel Arteta was there to knock in a rebound.

Arsène Wenger was relieved. For him, the win restored some of the confidence lost after the previous two results.  He also had plenty to say about Wilshere's performance, mainly that he looks strong but warned everyone that the player will need some time to return to his best form.

Next up came Reading in the League Cup. As usual, we sported a very different line-up that the weekend, with the boss making a full 11 changes. But with players like Carl Jenkinson, Laurent Koscielny, Andrey Arshavin and Theo Walcott starting, it could hardly be called an inexperienced side. But for the first 45 minutes, it may as well have been.

Reading stormed to a 4-0 lead in the first 37 minutes. It was awful. Chins dropped and heads hung down as the win against QPR looked much more like an exception rather than the rule.

But then something happened. Theo Walcott got Arsenal on the scoresheet seconds before the halftimewhistle. A lifeline perhaps? Surely not. Sure, 4-1 is better than 4-0, but that's still quite a mountain to climb. And from the start of the second half it seemed the path got even steeper as the Royals looked like scoring a couple more times.

The manager made some changes at the hour mark and everything changed. The additions of Giroud and Thomas Eisfeld. Giroud headed home a Walcott corner within two minutes and it was suddenly a game again. But it would take another 15 minutes before Arsenal could get any closer. It started to appear as though Arsenal had run out of steam until Koscielny nodded one home from another corner in the 89thminute. The clock continued to tick down and it looked as though this comeback would fall short.

At this point I have to share my personal story. A minute or so into stoppage time, my computer froze up and I lost the audio feed from Arsenal Player. Assuming I didn't have enough time to relauch, I figured I would just prepare a tweet for saying something along the lines of "FULL TIME: 4-3. After falling behind 4-3 Arsenal's amazing comeback fell just short." Then I would just wait until the live text commentary on Arsenal Player showed that the game had ended. But rather than seeing a final score, this popped up on my screen:

                UNBELIEVABLE: They've done it! Arsenal are level! What a comeback

Once again the chins dropped, but in a very different way. The rest of the story is best told through the free highlights on Arsenal Player, so I will leave you with that.

Who'd a thunk it? Apparently Arsène did. The manager said after the game that he thought his side could come back after Theo's first goal. But more important than the win itself was simply the team's attitude in the second half. "We can be inspired by this," the manager told Arsenal Player. "We need that spirit, that never-give-up attitude for the next two games."

And those next two games are biggies. Away to Manchester United on Saturday and Schalke in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday. The trip to Old Trafford obviously has one big sub-plot: facing a certain Dutch striker for the first time. He is currently tied at the top of the Premier League scoring table with seven goals, while Arsenal's leading scorer in the league - Gervinho -  is out for about three weeks with ankle injury.

The same fixture from last season is still burned into the memories of Arsenal fans. Wenger, however, insists his players will not dwell on that. "On the day I think the result was down to special circumstances," he says. "That's why the emotional meaning is big but the footballing meaning is not very big, and we have had that behind us for a long, long time now."

And hopefully the win at Reading put all of the recent demons behind us as well. It's probably a safe bet that we won't see an 8-2 scoreline again, but there is certainly potential for a lot of goals. The big questions: Can Arsenal fend off United's strength on the wings? Can United stop conceding goals? We'll soon find out.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney


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1 Nov 2012