Friday, 30 December 2011

2011 Review

So here's a review of 2011. Not the greatest year in Arsenal's history, and one that was overall very disappointing considering what we could have achieved.

A lot of players, key players too, have left, some on good terms and some will never be forgiven. But also there has been a giant influx of new talent too, and as always you sense that there is a very promising, talented bunch of players at the club, and as always you sense that the future is bright.

I'll do it in three parts to save a long read, but I hope you enjoy it. Leave comments and feedback too.

So where to start eh? Well January is probably the best place to start an annual review, and January was a quite happy time to be an Arsenal fan. The year started in just about the most positive way you could hope for. An enormousness 3-1 result against current champions Chelsea, put us into second place, but more importantly, Arsenal looked ready to fight for the title. A positive mood had embodied the Emirates and everyone was looking forward to the new year, and the possibility of an unrivalled quadruple - how wrong we were.

A big blip 2 days later with a disappointing draw at Wigan after seven changes did little to dampen our spirits, although with hindsight, it did forebode our future inability to defend a lead. However on the 1st January Arsenal faced a difficult challenge away at Birmingham. It was a challenge we passed with flying colours as a glorious Arsenal display ended with us being 3-0 winners.

A forgettable 0-0 at home to City was annoying, but there was still an air of confidence among the fans and the squad, even with Arsene ruling out any January signings, despite Vermaelen's continuing injury troubles. We somehow managed to stay in the cup despite drawing at home to Leeds and losing at Ipswich. Arsenal had won 2 games in 7, but were still in four competitions and people were starting to back Wenger's men to end the trophy drought.

This was compounded with two excellent performances at West Ham, where (possible target) Wayne Bridge was torn apart in a 3-0 victory, and Leeds, where Nasri, Sagna and yes you've guessed it Van Persie were scorers in a comprehensive 3-1 win. To end the month, Wigan (PL), Ipswich(CC) and Huddersfield(FA) were dispatched of courtesy of a Van Persie hat-trick, a Bendtner cracker and a Fabregas penalty in each game respectively, and, although all sensible Gooners knew that its was impossible,  the quadruple was still possible.

February was an amazing month for Arsenal, and one that included some of my best and worst moments as a fan. To start the month, after yet another quiet deadline day at the club, we faced Everton. This was one of my favourite games of the season. They took the lead following an abysmal decision to allow Saha to score, when he was about 20 yards offside, well my memory may mean I exaggerate things but it was an easy, clear decision. However, instead of letting our heads drop, we bounced back and started a continuing onslaught on the Everton goal. The fans were fantastic and drove Arsenal on and on, until in the 70th minute Arshavin scored and it was almost inevitable that Arsenal would get the winner, which came from Koscielny 6 minutes later. After the game, I walked away from the stadium very happy, it seemed like one of those moments which defines a season.

Sadly, one of the defining moments of the season came 4 days later. The 4-4. There's not much I can say about this game that hasn't already been said, and to be honest I don't want to remember anything about this match in great detail. But after going 4-0 up in 26 minutes, and still leading 4-0 right up until the 68th minute, I still find it unbelievable how we didn't get the three points. Some abysmal defending, and overall lack of fight and spirit contributed to the downfall and there's probably still some damage left to repair regarding an inability to defend a lead. The tough tie against Barcelona was looming and things looked at their worst.

We bounced back with a 2-0 win at home to Wolves and waited for the visit of the best club side ever in midweek. Noone expected anything from Arsenal. Barcelona had comprehensively beaten us last year and had improved since, whilst Arsenal had just shown their weaknesses against Newcastle. Yet Wenger had a plan, a plan that had secured a draw for being 2 goals down the year before, a plan that worked perfectly this time round. We were battered possession wise by Barcelona and they scored a beautiful goal through Villa and had a (wrongly) disallowed goal through Messi in a one sided first half. Yet Arsenal battled hard, and stuck to their normal game, the young Jack Wilshere was exceptional in midfield next to his Captain who had his best game in a disappointing season. But it was in defence where Koscielny and Djourou were absolutely world class and Szczesny - in his Champions League debut - was just as brilliant.

As the minutes flew by, we grew into the game, and with the introductions of Bendtner and Arshavin, Arsenal had goals in them, and with the fans creating the best atmosphere the Emirates has seen, you sensed something special was about to happen. And it did. Van Persie scored an impossible goal after a dink through by Clichy, before Arshavin applied a finish to a beautiful, counter-attacking move to lift the roof off the (roofless) stadium. Arsenal announced their arrival as a brilliant side to the rest of the world, and we did it in style. When speaking about his 2011 Van Persie said this really stood out:

"It's so difficult to pick a personal highlight from the year, but a couple of events stand out, such as beating Barcelona at the Emirates," he said. "That has become a really nice memory. Everyone who you ask about that game smiles in response. 
"The day after that game, a guy came up to me in the village. He said to me 'All I want to say to you is that I have been an Arsenal fan all my life, and last night's game against Barcelona was the best Arsenal game ever.'

"He said it was the best Arsenal evening of his life, and when you can give people something like that, it really is something special."

We couldn't have asked  for a more different, contrasting game at the weekend but we travelled to Leyton Orient with the confidence of kings. Newcastle was a distant memory and we could look forward to a Cup Final in a few weeks too. It was fate that we didn't beat Orient as Tahoue, scored a late equaliser to earn his squad a trip to Las Vegas as well as a trip to North London in the replay that would follow.

Before the Carling Cup final though, we faced Stoke, in another forgettable game, but a game which had a massive impact on our chances at the weekend. We won 1-0 through a Squillaci, yes Sebastian Squillaci scored and kept a clean sheet for us, header but the game was more about the injuries that two of our most important players picked up. Theo was definitely out of the final. Cesc had a 'slim chance' but, sadly it was slightly too slim.

If Barcelona was one of the best memories for Arsenal fans, Birmingham will probably rank quite high up in terms of disappointment. It was a wet, grey February day, and I still haven't seen the replays so being at the game I can't really remember much. What I do remember is that we didn't play at our best. We were nervous, edgy and Birmingham sensed it. They took the lead through someone I can't remember, and our centre-backs who only a few weeks previously had dealt fantastically against Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Villa and co. just couldn't deal with the Birmingham aerial attack. Van Persie equalised with, what people tell me was a brilliant goal. We were better in the 2nd half but could turn possession and chances into goals and were punished.

A cataclysmic mistake/error by Szczesny and Koscielny presented an open goal to Obafemi Martins who slotted home into the empty net easily. Sitting in the Wembley crowd I just couldn't believe it. I couldn't bring myself to leave, and even though I knew we wouldn't equalise, I was glued to my seat until full time. It was a quiet trip home from Wembley.

That's the end of part one. Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Henry to sign within 2 days.

Welcome back Titi.

It's not often that a player with the calibre and quality of Thierry Henry turns up at your club. Arsenal were lucky to have his during his prime as he became the best player in Arsenal's history during his 9 year stint, scoring 226 goals and laying on 92 assists in his 369 appearances. It is certainly a rare event to have him turn up twice.

Yet, as Sky Sports News report this evening, Arsenal's greatest player Thierry Henry will re-sign with the Gooners on a 2 month loan deal from New York Red Bulls.

The deal was offered in the last few days as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger looks to add depth to his squad that is set to lose Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh for up to 2 months during the Cup of African Nations. 

He could feature in seven Premier League games — as well as FA Cup ties and the first leg of Arsenal’s Champions League last-16 clash against AC Milan. But it is the Premier League matches against Manchester United and Tottenham coming up where he could make the biggest difference.

Whilst Thierry is not the player that left Arsenal in 2007, and is certainly in the twilight of his career, the 34 year old does have the ability to trouble Premiership defences. You can sense Arsene's reasoning for bringing back his fellow Frenchman as, even in a less advanced role, Henry scored 15 goals in 29 matches for New York this year. Albeit not against the best opposition, it is certainly not a bad return and is very favourable when compared to Chamakh's 2 goals in 12 months.

Since the off season started in the US, Thierry has been training with the Arsenal first and reserve teams and his quality has been there to see. In a recent interview, Per Mertesacker noted how he has impressed the Arsenal squad with his sharpness and attitude. He said:
"Henry has a lot of experience and he is a great opportunity for us, but I am not the manager and I do not know what is possible, for him or for us. In training, Henry shows his class and [it is good] to have him with us. He still has the same attitude he showed in a lot of games at Arsenal."
The big German also hinted at the possible signing of national team mate Lukas Podolski:

"He is a good striker with a very good finish. His left foot is unbelievable and I am a fan of him. This year, he has scored a lot of goals. He is powerful as well."

There are some negatives to Henry's return though. Sure he brings his quality and experience in abundance, but will his surrounding aura have a negative impact on team mates. For every medal he can show, he can now show his statue just outside too, and will he be content to bide with the unused Park for a back up slot? Maybe the old Thierry would not, but the Frenchman has matured as he has reached his mid thirties and, on the short term basis that he will join the club, will surely lift the mood amongst the squad.

His love for the club has always been evident, and he can show the rest of the team what it actually means to play in the famous red and white shirt.

Hopefully we will see more of this.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Silva Strike Seals Win and Sinks Promising Arsenal Side.

Manchester City 1 - 0 Arsenal.

A tense tight affair that, whilst keeping you on the edge of your seat with your heart in your mouth, was strangely enjoyable. It was only fair that a simple, solitary goal separated the two excellent sides in what was possibly the best game of the season so far.

Defeat is not so nice to take. We all hate losing. Especially when we played so well. Especially when we lose to a team with unrivalled resources with many of their players in the form of their lives. We can take positives from today though.

City we definitely first out the blocks and attacked Arsenal from all sides with pace, power with intricate movement. Aguero and Balotelli could have easily scored after a couple of excellent moves, but their finishing was not at it's best, whilst Szczesny continued his marvellous form this season with a couple of world class saves.

Arsenal definitely started slowly, and our passing game was not able to dominate due to the pressure that City plied on us. On numerous occasions Djourou and Walcott gave the ball away quite cheaply, whilst Song was guilty of a few too many cynical fouls and picked up a yellow card that will rule him out of the Villa game.

We slowly grew into the game, and Gervinho was very threatening, with excellent movement across the forward line, whilst Ramsey also troubled Hart before the break after a teasing shot from a short corner. However it was still goalless at half-time, and seemed perfectly poised as we went into the second half. Van Persie was starting to impose himself on the game more and more, Gervinho was having one of his most promising games so far and the makeshift back four was holding up reasonably well.

The second half started in a similar fashion to the first. As the Sky Sports panel pointed out after the match, it seemed to have everything; the power and pace of the Premier League along with a continental twist with perfect passing patterns. But as ever with Arsenal, injuries dissipated our already makeshift back four and Djourou made way for the young Ignasi Miquel. That meant Vermaelen moved to CB, whilst the yellow carded Koscielny went to right back.

He was immediately attacked, and City delivered a knock-out blow. There were no massive errors by the Arsenal defence, but a series of small mistakes were punished by City's world-class millionaire strike force. Koscielny was out of position as a through ball found Balotelli in space. The Italian cut inside Alex Song, maybe slightly too easily, and delivered a powerful shot which was only parried by Szczesny before Aguero, and then Silva pounced on the rebound and slotted into the empty net. 

You could argue that Arteta or Miquel should have been closer to Silva, but its hard to "blame" any of them out right, and Koscielny, Song and even Szczesny all could have done better. 

We did react positively to their goal, and our heads didn't drop as they possibly would have in recent years. The Arsenal approach was probably too gung-ho, considering there was aver a third of the match remaining, and City probably should have had a second with Arsenal committing players forward at will.

The attacking approach did cause City problems and you had a feeling we could knick something. After-all, City aren't the best at keeping clean sheets. Arshavin skewed an effort wide, that an in form Arshavin probably would have slotted in with ease, but when was the last time we saw an in form Arshavin? Towards the end Vermaelen and Van Persie showed their desire to rescue a point, and the Belgian defender threatened with two brilliant efforts form outside the box, which genuinely frightened Hart in the City goal.

However, Wenger just doesn't have the quality on the bench that his counterpart Mancini has. Arshavin entered the fray for the disappointing Walcott, and later on Chamakh replaced Mertesacker. But both of them have done nothing this season to warrant a place in the Arsenal line up. Chamberlain would have offered pace, and a bit of the unknown factor, but he wasn't even on the bench.

In comparison, City brought on Milner, Dzeko and De Jong, who are proven quality players who cost a combined total of nearly 70 million pounds. They didn't even have to bring on Johnson or Lescott - both players who would walk into most Premier League line ups.

The players ratings were:
Szczesny 7 Vermaelen 8 Koscielny 6 Mertesacker 6 Djourou 6 Arteta 8 Song 6 Ramsey 6.5 Gervinho 7 Van Persie 7 Walcott 5
Subs: Miquel 6 Arshavin 5 Chamakh 5.5

Overall, whilst it was disappointing to lose, compounded by the fact that all the teams around us picked up some points. But considering the last time we went up to Manchester we lost 8-2, we don't need to show how much we have improved since.

People may go on about the ref having a poor game. But the Richards penalty decision could have gone either way to be honest, and whilst he is not a ref that I usually rate, I have to admit he had a decent game today, using his experience to calm the game down and retain 22 players on the pitch.

the main change since the United debacle in August is that our passing game is back. And today was supported expertly by the excellent Arteta who seemed to continuously remain calm and retain possession. He has been a quality signing by Wenger and was definitely unlucky to be on the losing side today.

Just like the other game against Manchester City, one goal was enough to do the damage and you could say we were unlucky in both games. Today's encounter could have ended in any scoreline by the end, with both sides taking turns to attack and the result was probably fair, even if it's hard to take.

We definitely need to strengthen in attacking areas, especially with Chamakh and Gervinho off to the African Nations Cup. After the match Arsene said:
"We have numbers in midfield, but with Gervinho + Chamakh going to ACN, we are short upfront."

Hopefully that means a return to the transfer market in January, and the names of Jovetic, Reus, Podolski and even Dempsey are players I would like to see. Henry remains a likely candidate but is only short term.

We need to go on another unbeaten run like we've just enjoyed if we have any dreams of finishing in the Top Four or above. The response starts against Villa and even with our squad starting to look frail we need to get all we can from the busy Christmas period.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

David Seaman - Arsenal's greatest number 1

This is the first in a series of blogs conducting Arsenal's greatest eleven of all time using the results of polls of Arsenal fans.

There was only one place to start here, and despite Szczesny's best efforts in these recent matches, there was a clear winner, he is a long way behind Arsenal's tremendous list of Goalkeeping greats. 

The poll included Pat Jennings, who appeared in 3 consecutive FA Cup finals - winning one in 1979, John Lukic, the goalkeeper during the 1989 Championship winning side, Bob Wilson, the double winning 'keeper from 1971, and the invincible Lehmann.

Yet the winner of the poll, with a massive 66% and 271 votes out of 406, was Arsenal's most successful ever man behind the sticks, David Seaman. The popularity of Seaman was so much that he managed 68 more votes than the rest of the challengers combined, which was truly amazing.

Seaman was a world class quality and the final line of defence behind that back four in the 90's. If anyone ever got past Adams and co even then they probably had their hardest task of all, putting the ball past Seaman. His agility was amazing for someone so big, and David would continuously throw himself around the goal, saving almost impossible shots.

He was signed in 1990 for a then record British fee for a goalkeeper of 1.3 million pounds, having been a target of Arsenal and Manchester United for the last few years. In his first season, he was behind one of the most successful title winning teams of all time in 1990/1, where Arsenal went through the season losing one game, and only conceding 18 goals.

David carried on winning trophies at Arsenal, and soon became first choice for England when Terry Venables was appointed manager in 1994. During the early 90's, Arsenal lost the consistency to challenge week in, week out for the league, and became cup specialists, winning  both the FA Cup and the League Cup in 1993 and supplemented this a year later with the European Cup Winners' Cup.

With the arrival of Wenger in September 1996, Seaman continued to be number one. In the Frenchman's first full season, David helped guide the Arsenal to their first "double" triumph in 21 years. A year later, Seaman played all 38 league matches, conceded only 17 league goals as Arsenal came agonizingly close to retaining the Premier League and lost in the FA Cup semi-finals to Manchester United.

In another remarkable year, with a new squad assembled including the likes of Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry, they managed to repeat the "double" achievement four years later in 2002.

In his last year at the club, David enjoyed one of his proudest moments where, as captain due to Vieira's absence, he held aloft the FA Cup trophy. This came after his unbelievable save in the semi final from a Paul Peschisolido's header, one which Peter Schmeichel dubbed "the best save I've ever seen". That would be his 12 trophy with the Arsenal.

In the summer of 2003 he was transferred to Manchester City, yet had to retire after more injury problems. In his amazing career, he made 75 appearances for England, and made 564 appearances for the Arsenal. He was our greatest number one.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Arsene hints at January purchase

Whilst the result in the Chelsea match last night was not perfect for Arsenal, despite it condemning any comparisons between this good City team and our incredible invincible team, it has certainly done one thing, and that is opened up the possibility of one of the most exciting, intriguing title races in years.

With a good result on Sunday we could really open things up, although getting anything against that side, especially at their place, where they are unbeaten in 2 matches will be one of the hardest tasks we face this season. And to put things into perspective, the last time we played a match against a side of similar stature we lost. 8-2.

Monday included some very bad news that we will be without any fullbacks for the foreseeable future with Jenkinson, Sagna, Gibbs and now Santos all injured. That means that we are very short in defence, and are likely to see the continuation of the Djourou, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen back four over the congested christmas holiday period - bar any more injuries (touch-wood). That is not the best news, especially with the importance of those games, yet in an optimistic thought, Newcastle showed just how much teams can benefit from having the same back four week in, week out.

This could also mean an entrance to the transfer market for Wenger, but any defensive purchase is likely to be short term, as even with the players we have out Squillaci, Miquel and other promising young defenders can't get a look in.

Today, Arsene hinted at a possible foray into the market, something that he dismissed a few weeks back, so something must have changed. The Frenchman said:

"We lose players like Chamakh and Gervinho to the Africa Cup of Nations so hopefully, we do not get any injuries to our strikers, But if an opportunity turns up in that department then we will buy."

 However, he only said that we will look for bargain deals, as the current economic environment has changed...blah blah blah. There are quality players available on the cheap though, without taking wages into account, so we may be able to bring in some quality to help bolster our squad.

The names of Argentinean holding midfielder Lucas Biglia, a player we were heavily linked to in August, and the frequently linked to Gary Cahil have been mentioned in the press, along with the other usual names (Eduardo Vargas and Lukas Podolski). Todays comments hint at other striking options and hopefully we will be working like we did at the end of August to secure players, rather than how we acted in the rest of the window.