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CL Secured, Ozil + Di Maria, Juan Mata

August 28, 2013
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We all knew that qualification for the Champions League would be fairly straight forward after the 3-0 away win in Turkey last week, but that kind of confidence can be dangerous if the players take a lax attitude towards the competition. Thankfully this did not happen as the whole team seemed to get the importance of putting in a strong performance against Fenerbahçe at the Emirates, for their own sake and that of the fans and any potential transfer targets.

Two goals from Aaron Ramsey, both created with important work from Walcott and Gibbs, gave Arsenal the 2-0 scoreline on the night. Ramsey continues to be our best player at the moment and you can’t see a scenario, barring injury, where the manager doesn’t play him. In the two CL qualification matches Arsenal scored 5 goals, three of which were Ramsey’s. Impressive. The Welshman, along with Wilshere and Podolski, took knocks on the night, which are worrisome; Podolski will miss at least three weeks with a hamstring tear, but the state of the two midfielders is yet to be fully determined. Let’s hope they’re available for the North London Derby on Sunday.

With the business of the Champions League sorted, Wenger can now turn full attention to business of a transfer nature. He’s said repeatedly that we are a bit short on numbers and he’s looking for a couple of quality players to correct this situation. The latest news centres around Di Maria and Ozil of Real Madrid: if the Gareth Bale transfer goes through, Real will be likely to sell one or both of these other players (rumours are we’re ready to bid £60 million for the pair of them). Ozil would perhaps be the best buy we could make at the moment; his creativity is immense with some of the best numbers in all Europe over the last couple of seasons, and we could use a bit more of that at the moment. The rumour that we’re in for goalkeeper Casillas is still lingering as well.

The final bit of news is related to Chelsea’s Juan Mata. He hasn’t played a game yet this season (which has messed with my fantasy team considerably), and word is he may be leaving Chelsea if the right situation occurs. He’s a great player and I’d take him if the Real deal falls through. Arsène has denied that we are in for the spaniard, but has mentioned in the press that he rates him. One last piece of information to go with this that may or may not mean anything, is that Mata’s father was supposedly attending the CL qualifier last night as a special invited guest. There may be something in the works there. Time will tell.

Right. Our next match is Sunday against that crowd at White Hart Lane. North London is Red folks.

Cheers.

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Fulham 1-3 Arsenal: Poldi Brace for Impact

August 24, 2013

This week has shown Arsenal responding well to the poor performance at home last weekend by, firstly, winning away at Fenerbahçe by three goals to nil, and three goals to one today at Craven Cottage. It seems that even though there’s been a lot of pressure on the manager and the players, the latter have at least stepped up their efforts to improve the club’s situation.

Giroud scored the first goal after brilliantly controlling a shot from Ramsey, allowing him to flick the ball into the net from close range. There’s no doubt he was lucky with the take, but given the situation he did very well to position himself and keep his composure to make the finish. Podolski would score a screamer before halftime, when a shot from Walcott was saved by the Fulham keeper and the rebound found its way to the German on the edge of the box. Poldi would score again after halftime with another fine finish from the left corner of the penalty area. Cazorla made a fine run into the box only to be crowded out by defenders; he spun around and, almost without looking, passed the ball back to Podolski, who fired it across goal and in.

Since the trip to Istanbul (was Constantinople) midweek, there’s been talk that Podolski might be leaving Arsenal, either on loan or permanently, in light of likely signings that might see him spend more time on the bench than on the pitch. He’s done a good job today, being deployed on the wing where he seems by far to be most productive. I think some competition for him would do the job nicely. That said, Wenger has stated in a press conference today, in response to these transfer rumours, that Poldi will be staying at Arsenal. Today’s brace for the German shows that the manager hasn’t lost his marbles yet.

A good result overall with some fine individual displays across the pitch. It looks like some depth added to the current squad in the form of two or three top quality players may give us a shot at some silverware this season. Live in hope.

Cheers.

Fenerbahçe 0-3 Arsenal: Required Response

August 22, 2013
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This week has illustrated quite nicely the concern with Arsenal teams over the last couple of seasons. On Saturday we got our arses handed to us at home against what really should have been a struggling team (Villa would go on to lose their midweek tie with Chelsea), leaving the fan base to question the sanity of the manager and board for the lack of signings. Yesterday, we travelled to Istanbul (was Constantinople) for the first leg of our Champions League qualification tie and perform above and beyond expectation, winning comfortably by 3 goals to nil. Consistency: not something we’re known for.

It should be noted that the opposition, while not wholly terrible, were error prone throughout the match, making it easier for Arsenal to regain possession and press forward. Passing by Wilshere, Ramsey, Rosicky, and Cazorla was fine and intricate around the box, making us look a threat from the open of the game. Rosicky continues to show good form early in the season, making our midfield that much more dangerous. Wilshere and Ramsey both hounded Fenerbahçe players while off the ball, and the quality of their tackling was elevated from the weekend. In truth, looking at the starting XI you’d almost figure there were no concerns with the team, as we fielded about as strong a side as we have and they played well. The only hiccup being Koscielny receiving a nasty kick to the face, requiring that he be subbed off in the first half (don’t worry, he’s fine). Jenkinson came in at right back and Sagna moved over to the centre of defense. Sagna still surprises me when defending in the middle; he’s certainly a quality player we can’t afford to lose. It should also be noted, Szczesny had a good game, as opposed to his display last weekend, making a couple of important late saves to secure the clean sheet for Arsenal.

We should talk about the goals. The first came early in the second half through a lovely defense-cutting ball from Ramsey, putting Walcott through on the right side of the penalty area. Theo placed a perfect low ball across the face of goal for Gibbs to place it in the top of the net. A well worked piece of play. The second came from Aaron Ramsey, who had a fantastic game all around. He took the ball outside the 18 yard box from the left of midfield and charged past his marker to fire a low long ball into the bottom corner. Volkan, the Fenerbahçe keeper, got a hand to it, but couldn’t steer the ball away. The last goal was a penalty scored by Giroud after Walcott was taken down through clumsy defending. The frenchman put the ball neatly into the top left of goal, sending the keeper the other way.

As a whole, it wasn’t the most confident display from the team, but it got the job done nicely. It’s just the response the team needed to make after the disappointment against Villa amid all the criticism of transfer business gone wrong (or not at all). It puts us in great shape to qualify now with three away goals in the first leg, and will make the task very hard for Fenerbahçe in a week’s time.

Cheers.

Possible Transfer Target: Iker Casillas

August 21, 2013
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The news this morning, which started last evening, is that Iker Casillas, the Real Madrid goal keeper, has come to the attention of the transfer monkeys at Arsenal. Though nothing is confirmed as of yet, if there’s any truth to the rumour it shows that Wenger has started to take the search for an experienced keeper seriously, which is if nothing else comforting.

A quality keeper is more important to us right now than signing a player like Luis Suarez. It may sound a bit crazy to say that, but if you watched the Aston Villa game and most of the matches Szczesny played last season, you’d understand the importance. He’s a bright young keeper and I have no doubt if he sticks around he’ll be important for Arsenal in 4-5 years time, but he’s not the first choice keeper a top four club needs. United, Chelsea, City, Spurs, Stoke, and Liverpool are ahead of us in the keeper department right now, so signing a player to keep balls out of the net is crucial.

Casillas has the experience (he’s 32 years old now), has put in plenty of time as captain of club and national sides, has been rated one of the best goalkeepers in the world and has consistently played between 40 and 55 games a season for Real Madrid from 1999-2012. He’s won La Liga five times, the Champions League twice, The Confederations Cup twice, the Euros twice, and a World Cup. Those are some mean credentials, not to mention the mound of individual awards he’s piled up over the years. Last season he played 29 games and seems to be falling out of favour somewhat, with Madrid looking to Diego Lopez more and more (Casillas was sidelined with a hand injury earlier in the year). Now might be the best time to take advantage of his abilities while Arsenal can. Casillas would make a great first choice keeper, or provide competition for the likes of Szczesny and Fabianski.

According to The Guardian, Madrid would be looking for £15 million for him, should Arsenal go in at all. I think it’s a move we have to make if we want to salvage this transfer window. With that kind of expense it still leaves enough money left in the bank to fill our needs in defense, midfield, and bring in a striker. They won’t all be world class signings, but this one certainly would be.

Cheers.

Preview: Pressure to Perform at Fenerbahçe

August 20, 2013
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At this stage in the summer with all the transfer business that has been done and, to a greater significance, has not been done, there can’t be too much importance placed on tomorrow’s Champions League qualifier against Fenerbahçe. True, the Turkish club is currently waiting to hear whether or not they will remain in the competition as a result of being in arbitration over a ban for match fixing that lead to the club winning the Turkish league in 2011, but that does not make the tie any easier. The challenge seems to come as much from our own situation as from the strength of our opponents, leaving Arsenal with a lot to prove at this point in the season, to fans and the football world alike.

With the exception of the tour of Asia in preseason, Arsenal have been rather lacklustre in recent weeks. Beating Manchester City was the bright spot among a poor Emirates Cup showing, and loss to Aston Villa last weekend. Many will blame this directly on the manager for the club’s lack of transfer activity since July 1 and with good reason. As much as I like Wenger, there’s not much that can explain away the current squad problems when it comes to depth, something the manager should have sought to take care of early last month. This brings us to the biggest concerns for tomorrow’s game: fitness and squad depth.

The Villa game on Saturday was a masterclass in how not to start a season with your squad. Player options weren’t there due to injury and lack of signings, and this problem only got worse as the game progressed, leaving us now without the option of Chamberlain (ruled out for up to 6 months with a knee injury), and leaving Sagna as a possible doubt as well (though he did train with the team this morning). Arteta, who has more and more been seen as vital to our team’s fluidity and confidence, missed this game but will remain out with a thigh problem, leaving us with a very thin squad. At this point, forget the fact we have not signed a world class centre forward, rather be concerned that we barely have enough fit players to make a decent showing on the pitch.

Tomorrow will be a test for the team and one that is of vital importance. If Arsenal put in a poor showing and lose, then that will make Champions League qualification very tricky indeed. The players know that if they mess up qualification, it will be the first time Arsenal will not make the european tournament under the guidance of Arsène Wenger. If that’s not pressure enough, consider this: with Arsenal’s current reputation as a top four club and our place on the european stage, we have two factors in our favour in drawing new, world class talent to the club: 1) our place in the Champions League and 2) Wenger’s reputation as a manager.

The first of these two points helped us sign players like Arteta, Cazorla, Mertesacker, and Podolski in recent seasons, but already we see this is no longer a given as our more important players have also left for greener pastures. Suarez, arguably a player we need to compete at the highest level, has said that playing in the Champions League is of vital importance for him and that this would likely be what pulls him away from Liverpool. It seems that this signing and others have been delayed to see if Arsenal make it into the competition this year (one wonders if certain signings would have already been completed if we’d finished 3rd instead of 4th). Our players have been vocal about the need for new, quality signings and they know full well those signings will be a lot less likely if the team doesn’t qualify for the Champions League.

The second factor, Arsène Wenger’s reputation, has done us well over the last 10-15 years. He’s viewed as an intelligent, calculating, and caring manager who looks out for his players. The manager has taken a lot of flak lately for his inability or unwillingness to spend the money to strengthen a weak squad; this combined with our shaky league performances in the last couple of seasons has lowered the perception other clubs and players have of Arsenal and the manager. Our fans and the media question Wenger’s motives and abilities on a daily basis now, and the fact that the club has won no major trophies since 2005 only serves to lessen the club’s stature. Is Wenger still the big draw he was for quality players?

The pressure is certainly rising for our players and manager to perform tomorrow. Without the injuries and with a bit more depth in the squad, I would feel fairly confident about facing Fenerbahçe away. Looking at our form from the end of last season and, to a lesser extent, some of our preseason matches, Arsenal look to be in a good position. The problem is a lot has changed since the spring and there’s now a lot resting on tomorrow’s match.

Cheers.

What It Means to Lose 1-3 at Home to Aston Villa

August 18, 2013
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Not a headline anyone really wants to hear the morning after the Premier League returns for another season. It’s been what seems like a long and arduous summer and to get no positive result at all from yesterday’s game is difficult to say the least. The scoreline highlights the lack of appropriate precautions and preparations made over the last month and a half, and brings the remaining two weeks of the transfer window into even greater focus for Arsenal fans.

The Villa match showed how a series of unfortunate occurrences play out at top level clubs. Arteta, our experienced acting captain, was just this week said to be missing up to 4-6 weeks with a thigh strain. The spaniard is one of, if not our most consistent player, who happens to play a very important role deep in midfield. Some stats were floated around the internet that help illustrate Arteta’s often underestimated impact on the team:

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Though he plays as a defensive midfielder, it’s obvious to fans who watch him regularly that he helps generate our fluidity and is crucial to the creative aspect of our game. Without him yesterday Arsenal struggled for the majority of the game.

Other injuries were problematic as well. We’re missing Vermaelen, who, while not playing the best of his career currently, provides needed cover and options at the back. His injury, and the fact that Djourou and Miquel have both been sent out on loan to other clubs, makes the squad paper thin at the back. Gibbs began the game well, but was pulled off part way through the first half after receiving a deep cut above his left eye as a result of an aerial challenge. At this point, there was no other option than to start playing the squad out of position: Sagna came over to play at left back and Jenkinson took over at right back. The first day of the season and we’re already using a makeshift back line.

I’ve made reference earlier in the summer to Arsenal’s need to sign a new goal keeper to provide cover, but also competition for players like Szczesny and Fabianski and the Villa game added support to this idea. Szczesny was not his reliable self from a couple seasons ago and, in truth, played a bit too much like Almunia for my liking. In the first half especially, he would often be far off his line, playing the ball outside the 18 yard box, trying to head it away from Villa attackers. On one occasion he had to run back to goal and perform a diving save to prevent a scare. He did fine in saving the first penalty from Benteke and really had no hope with the rebounded header for the first goal, but beyond that he did not play particularly well, relying on opponents to put the ball just wide of the goal post to prevent and even more embarrassing result. For a club aspiring to remain a top four club, you’ve got to have a top four keeper and we certainly do not at this point.

Many people complained about bad refereeing in the game (I’m one of them). The first penalty was fine and that was all on Szczesny, though there are questions about whether an advantage was being played or a penalty (if the former was the case, than Villa were in on goal and missed their shot; if the latter than shouldn’t Szczesny have been sent off with a red?). The second penalty was a poor, poor call. Koscielny’s slide tackle made contact with the ball first and was in no way a poor play from the defender. It was a fantastic piece of play from him, but the referee gave a second yellow to him and a penalty, changing the game entirely. The constant stopping of the game every minute by the referee was poor as well, not allowing either side proper buildup play. The missed opportunities to successfully play the advantage were palpable. Poor refereeing alone, however didn’t’ lose us the game.

So what does all this mean for Arsenal? It’s just one game, meaning we’ve got 37 more in the league to make something of the season, and that’s always a positive. More immediate than that is the concern over the Champions League qualifier on Wednesday in Turkey. The above injuries are a concern, as are the additions from yesterday’s game (The Ox, Gibbs, Rosicky, and Ramsey are doubtful at the moment for Wednesday). Arsenal have a thin, thin squad right now and we’re not in good shape for this all important game. I say it’s all important because if we mess it up, we’re likely going to miss out on the Champions League, which is probably our biggest draw for new players. We’re not able to seal deals for world class players now and without the big european competition, we’re going to have even fewer transfer options.

I’m still supportive of the team (the players are doing their best), but the board and Wenger in particular must do more to bolster this squad. It’s not a matter of signing Suarez anymore; a centre forward, while important, is no longer our weakest position. I’d look at where Cazorla players on the pitch and say that from him forward we can survive, but behind him we’re dangerously lacking. There are two weeks left and that leaves little time for the club to make the big changes necessary.

Cheers.

Little Bit International Friendly Niggle

August 15, 2013

Well it’s Thursday, the morning after a bunch of international friendlies, which most fans will agree are essentially useless. I understand the importance of having the lads from the national sides get time playing together, especially with a World Cup less than a year away. There are qualifiers, there are big matches that can make the difference between a World Cup and no World Cup for some of these countries. The problem is that the matches from yesterday were just friendlies (pointless beyond a little practice) and, even more than this, they were scheduled for about the worst possible time of the footballing year.

We had a few of players out on international duty: Walcott, Wilshere, and Oxlade-Chamberlain for England, Szczesny for Poland, Mertesacker and Podolski for Germany, Cazorla for Spain, and Sagna, Koscielny, and Giroud for France. Walcott and Cazorla both managed to score for their national teams and that’s something to be proud of without a doubt. Any happiness a fan might have about this, however, is tempered by the fear of injury. Many fans on Twitter had stopped the transfer talk for a day or so in favour of an “#ArsenalPrayerCircle” in hopes that injuries would be avoided. With the Premier League beginning again this weekend, just two days away, it’s vital that our best players are all fit and ready to go. Everyone wants to see a good, solid start to the season against Aston Villa on Saturday.

As of this morning, to the best of my knowledge, none of these players picked up any serious injuries (a small knock for Walcott and Sagna), which is the greatest concern this week. These two players may be involved Saturday or may not, depending, but they have not been ruled out yet. Ramsey did not play for Wales due to a small training injury he sustained earlier in the week. The most recent concern is Mikel Arteta, who didn’t play yesterday, but has a minor thigh issue and will have a scan today to determine his likelihood of playing this weekend. As always, Wenger’s press conference will clear up these details and give us some indication of what’s involved.

We know how costly a poor season start can be for us. We’ve had less than stellar starts for the last couple of seasons and found ourselves far off the pace, at times even ear the back of the pack, forcing us to play catch up for a couple of months. This is not the kind of situation in which we want to find ourselves this season. This time we want to challenge for trophies, not just pretend we can, and a crucial part of doing so is keeping key players fit.

Cheers.

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