January 4, 2012

It had to end sometime.

Arsenal had won four games in row heading into the New Year's Day match at Southampton. It was exactly what the Club needed to do to bring 2012 to a close. Had the Boxing Day match against West Ham not been canceled - assuming we won it - we would have ended the year fourth in the table.

Still, after the incredible 7-3 win over Newcastle at the weekend, Arsenal had to settle for a draw and missed a golden opportunity to move up the table. Despite the same lineup that "could have scored 12" against Alan Pardew's side -- including one hat-trick and a brace that was inches from being a second hat-trick, Southampton were the only team to score goals and we slipped back to sixth, two points behind Everton.

The mood following each game was decidedly different. Amid the praise Arsène Wenger handed out to his team after the Newcastle win, was line about team spirit and character. "I feel the team is focused, has a good spirit, and are united. Slowly we are getting there. We still have some work to do."

But after the Southampton game? "We lacked purpose, penetration and speed. All qualities we have usually but lacked tonight."

The game is serves as a reminder that Premier League competition is tough from top to bottom. Don't believe me? Look what happened to Chelsea against QPR the following day.

And it's not only tough, it's getting tougher. Which brings us to the transfer window. Most fans will say without questions that we need to bring in some new talent in January and the manager has said he expects to be busy on the transfer front. But before you open a new browser window and click refresh 10,000 times -- he also says that he thinks the market will take a couple of weeks to get going.

Of course the big question is, where will Wenger look to strengthen the squad? While there are some oft-discussed positions, it's surprisingly difficult to find a consensus. But one clue could stem from which players are off - or rather said to be heading out. Marouane Chamakh has packed his bags and headed to West Ham on loan, Squillaci and Djourou could soon follow him out and there have been constant rumblings in the media and on the Twitter machine that Andrey Arshavin will leave as well. Could that mean a new striker, a wide player and perhaps a central defender?

In terms of the striker role, many assumed the obvious choice was Demba Ba. He ticked several boxes: Available, reasonably inexpensive and plenty of goals in the Premier League. But it became apparent pretty quickly that Arsenal wouldn't make a move for the player. As the manager explained, "I like Demba Ba personally, he is a similar type to Giroud who we just bought. It was one or the other one."

As in every transfer window, the number of players linked to Arsenal is pretty astounding. You'll see everything from big name superstars to players from smaller clubs whose names you can't pronounce. Big money has meant that the former has been somewhat difficult for Arsenal of late, but improved scouting networks mean that even the latter kind of player is also becoming harder to sign.

Regardless of which new rumors pop up, one thing is clear.  As Wenger says, "For us it is important to focus on our next game and our next game can only be won by the players who are here

And that next game is against Swansea in the FA Cup. It's a match-up of contradictions. Swansea beat us at the Emirates on December 1 ... but have only one win in their last six league games. Arsenal is on a five-game unbeaten run since that loss ... but Swansea is the team that many say are full of confidence. And in another twist, Swansea is the team that may have their eye on another fixture - they play the first leg of their Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Wednesday.

Kieran Gibbs said, "We go to Swansea like it's one of our biggest games of the season." Wenger said that he will put "maximum effort" to win the game and that he plans on playing the team with the best chance to win the game.

We all know how vital this month is. And by the time we tune into Arsenal Players for FA Cup highlights, we'll have a good sense of how it's going.

Come on you Gunners! 

- Kevin Mooney

 

December 28, 2012

One of the big criticisms of Arsenal over the last few years has been that the team was incapable of winning ugly. Of grinding out the tough win when the goals just weren't coming our way.

My, how times have changed.

The 1-0 win over Wigan at the DW Stadium last weekend epitomized winning ugly. It was wet. It was cold. And Roberto Martinez's squad forced Arsenal to defend deeply throughout the game. Fortunately for Arsenal, Wigan's final ball was... shall we say, less than impressive. A foul on Theo Walcott in the area and the resulting Mikel Arteta spot kick at the hour mark proved to be enough to steal all three points from a determined home side.

Most importantly, it marked three league wins in a row for the good guys. When asked about the streak in the post-match press conference, Arsène Wemger was pretty clear: "It's good but not enough. We want more." He elaborated on that a bit later by saying that he didn't want anyone getting carried away by three wins. "As much as we should not be too depressed when things [don't go right], we now need to keep our feet on the ground."

Jack Wilshere had a similar take. "At this time of year, with all the games coming up, you just need results," he said. "Today was no different." Jack went on to say that the big result against Reading would have been pointless without the win at Wigan because the team desperately needs to build momentum right now.

And a key to that momentum will undoubtedly be team defense. The boss hailed his squad for showing improvement against Wigan and he hopes that will soon combine with the strong offensive performance we saw against Reading.

The three points from Wigan lifted us into third place - at least temporarily. Considering we were languishing in 10th place just a few weeks ago, that's quite the accomplishment. Granted, Chelsea's demolition of Aston Villa on Sunday pushed them ahead of us and a flurry of unfavorable Boxing Day results put us back to seventh, but with a game in hand.

Still, what is important is our consistency. The manager pointed out how tight the top half of the league table is and expressed his belief that Arsenal will be up near the top come May. When asked if we felt his squad would do better points-wise in the second half of the season, he answered with a simple "we will."

While the postponement of the Boxing Day clash against West Ham means that Saturday's home game against Newcastle is technically not part of the second half of the season for us, it's as good a place as any to truly signal our turnaround. Between this game and the New Year's Day match against Southampton, Arsenal has a chance to pick up another six points and get a firmer grip on a top four spot.

Looking ahead to that Newcastle match up, the Magpies are simply hurting right now. They are just five points above the relegation zone, their away record is truly terrible this season - just four points from a possible 27 - and their midfield has been decimated by injury. For us, it's a very different story. Olivier Giroud and Tomas Rosicky should be available making Arsenal look shockingly close to full-strength (touch wood, swing cat over head, turnaround three times, throw salt over shoulder). Newcastle also suffered an exhausting defeat to Man United on Boxing Day while Arsenal had a nice lie-in. That said, the Geordies have two big goal scoring threats in Pappis Cisse and Demba Ba - so Arsenal must watch out for the counter-attack. 

Coming up on Tuesday is a trip to the south coast to take on Southampton. The Saints are also near the drop zone and only have three wins since September: against Reading, QPR ... and Newcastle. Although they will likely be looking for revenge in front of the home crowd for the 6-1 loss they suffered at the Emirates earlier this year.

So keep your fingers crossed for maximum points and plenty of momentum because on the horizon are an FA Cup tie against Swansea and Man City at home. The race to the finish line starts now.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

December 21, 2012

It's a commonly accepted in every sport that when individual players or teams as a whole are struggling with their confidence, things go poorly. And that the best medicine for a lack of confidence is a good performance that helps to get things back on track. Then there are the clichés about hitting bottom before you can drag yourself back up.

Take Arsenal. After the loss to Bradford City in the League Cup, there were numerous columns, blog posts and tweets suggestion that the end was nigh. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the Club's death were greatly exaggerated.

Going into Monday's game at Reading, hopes and expectations were high, but so was the concern. A team that put four goals past us in 37 minutes had another opportunity -again in front of their home fans. And coming off that loss to Bradford, that concern probably was justified. But rather than needing to stage an incredible second-half comeback, Arsenal all but put the game away in the first half.

Aside from the 5-2 scoreline, there were some very positive takeaways from the game. Santi Cazorla broke out of a bit of a slump to grab his first hat-trick. Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Cazorla absolutely dominated the midfield in a way we hadn't really seen yet. And Theo Walcott shined in the role of central striker.

Now, many would point out the fact that Reading is at the bottom of the league and in terrible form. But the fact is, the three points we earned pushed us up into fifth place , just two points behind our two London rivals. And let us also not forget that Reading nearly beat Man United at the beginning of the month. A win is a win is a win.

And that's essentially what Arsène Wenger said after the game. When asked what the team's goals were at this stage of the season, he said that they just need to focus on the next game - and to win it. "That's all we can do," he said. "That and focus on the quality of our football."

He later added, "Football rewards teams [that] play quality football and that's what we want to focus on ... Hopefully we'll get some confidence from the game today."

If we build that confidence, we should win more games. As I noted in early this month, if Arsenal can win all of those (five) eminently winnable December league games, those 15 points would likely earn us a spot back in the top four.

But alas, we were dealt a tiny blow in that category. We can no longer pick up the full 15 points. An impending tube drivers' strike on Boxing Day forced the Club to postpone the home game against West Ham until next month. The Boss was disappointed with the news, but it may not alter the players' schedule too much. "We will practice on Boxing Day for sure," said Wenger. "Christmas Day I have not decided yet."

While the news that we won't have a Boxing Day match for the second year in a row was displeasing, officials had warned of this possibility for some time. So it was hardly unexpected. Also somewhat unexpected was that five young Gunners extended their contracts with the Club this week. Jack, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson and Aaron Ramsey - all full internationals -- sat down and signed long-term deals in front of the cameras on Wednesday. The manager was thrilled and spoke of stability and the importance of a British core. Jenkinson meanwhile used phrases like "over the moon" to describe how he felt and also implied that this kind of action can inspire players to greatness. "People here clearly have belief in me," he said. "And now I have to make sure I prove them right."

The other big news came in the form of the Champions League draw for the knockout stages. A quick glance at the remaining clubs in the competition showed there really wasn't a single team among the winners or runners-up that you would call an easy draw. In fact most fans seemed to base their hopes of who we would get based on their average daily temperature in March.

In the end, we landed Bayern Munich - finalists in 2010 and 2012. It is far from an easy draw. But as Thomas Vermaelen says, "It doesn't matter who we drew, it will always be a tough one, especially in the Champions League." Still Lukas Podolski thinks Arsenal certainly have a chance against his old club. And compatriot Per Mertesacker suggests that if Arsenal can keep improving, "Maybe it's a good opportunity for us to face them in February because we will be in our rhythm."

Regardless, the first of the games are nearly two months aways and much more pressing matters are currently at hand. Arsenal head up to Wigan on Saturday to take on a side that is struggling on the injury front right now. The Latics, who are sitting in the relegation zone, will likely be forced to play several players in unfamiliar roles. That said, Wigan have caused us a fair amount of problems over the years. Roberto Martinez's squad beat us at the Emirates last season, and who will forget the 2010 game when we went from 2-0 up to a loss in the final 10 minutes? They also play a tricky 3-4-3 formation that can cause big, big problems - especially if the grab an early lead.

What Arsenal need to do tomorrow is to build on the confidence boost we picked up last weekend. We need focus. And most importantly... we really need to score more goals than the other guys.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

December 7, 2012

We'll just get this out the way. It was not the best of weeks. A pair of losses - a 2-0 defeat at home to Swansea and a 2-1 loss on the road to Olympiacos put everyone's frustrations and disappointment on full display. Everyone has reflected on the games enough, so it is perhaps best to just put them behind us, move on and consider the realities at hand.

We currently sit 10th in the Premier League. On paper that sounds... just awful. Arsenal in 10th? But the funny thing is, when you look a bit closer something peculiar stands out: Arsenal are five points out third place. Even stranger? Try this. Pick any three of the nine games we hadn't won prior to last weekend and add one goal in our favor to each of those three games. Best case? We sit third. Worst case? We sit sixth... and are undefeated.

Admittedly, it's a rather silly exercise, but it just illustrates again the fine line between success and crisis. Three shots a little to the right or a little to the left and the commentary in the media and blogosphere could be very different. It's not that things don't need to improve, clearly they do.

But what to do about it? The obvious answer is buying in January. But as Arsène Wenger pointed out that something really needs to happen before then. "We have a lot of important games until January," he said. "We'll decide [on targets] in January but at the moment, we have to find solutions before then."

One quick fix looks to be letting players get a bit of rest. The boss admitted that fatigue played a role in the Swansea loss - although he did stress it was only one of the factors. It was, however, a big enough factor for him to send a very different squad to Athens than one might normally have expected considering the situation. And that rest could prove to be a big deal to players like Mikel Arteta, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud.

Mix that in with a bit more focus and consistency and the staff and squad have made the kind of little tweaks that could help to get things back on track.

 But there's also one more element: Taking care of business at home. Arsène says "that is where we have to find the solution." That's hugely important because winning is really the only way to win over fans who are less than pleased with the way things are currently going. And that's something the players put only on themselves. "[The fans] have been outstanding so far," Arteta said. "We can't ask them to be behind us if we don't give them back what they deserve. It is up to us." Tomas Rosicky said it very succinctly: "That's the challenge. We did it last year, so why not do it again?"

Pardon the Pollyana here, but indeed, why not? There are six games -- five in the league -- before the year is up. There is no good reason we can't win all of them and find ourselves in a very different position by the time that big ball drops in Times Square.

First up is a big, big game against West Brom on Saturday. The Baggies are five points and five places ahead of us in the table, so it's actually a great game to make a statement. They are a very solid team and have been consistent all season, with few glaring weaknesses. So the question is, can Arsenal get  that one goal that can make all the difference? I think they can.

Come on you Gunners!

- Kevin Mooney

 

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

 

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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 4 Jan 2013