Goonergirl: Making Relationships Work

There is not much I can write about Arsenal Football Club that hasn’t been written already. But I’m going to try anyway. It’s not a matter of choice, becoming a supporter. Many people will call me crazy and dramatic, but most fans and supporters of teams will know just exactly what I mean when I say that it’s the team that chooses you.

People joke about fans “having relationships” with their teams, and they’re not too far off the mark. The only difference is that with a team, you are risking your heart weekly, sometimes even twice a week when there is European football, and there is more of a chance that you’ll get badly hurt, knowing all the while that it’s a life-long bond, and hence the risk of a lifetime of potential pain and heart-break. You may be wondering why we put ourselves through it, day in and day out, even when there is little hope, and even when things look bleak.

It all comes down to the reason why we ended up supporting that team in the first place. How we fell in love with the club and continue to have that bond strengthened every season. Now for many people, this will involve a victory, if not a trophy. But for most others, it will be something far stronger. My entire relationship with Arsenal has been during the Wenger era, and hence a large part of my love for the club has been based on and around his values – the insistence on playing beautiful-to-watch one-touch football in the world’s most physical football league, the elegant balance between youth and experience, and strength and style, the belief placed in nurturing and giving opportunity to young talent, and the very different attitude (at that time especially) that Le Prof  brought along with him, among others.  Ironically, a lot of my current Arsenal-related frustrations stem from the club’s resistance to change in the tiniest ways, leading to our assets turning into liabilities.

All Gooners know very well how it feels to face trophy-less seasons one after the other, without much hope of things changing in the near future. I have to admit that this is the season when I’m most worried about the team. It’s going to be a hard season anyway – with the battle for top 4, as well as the EPL title having more, stronger contenders than in previous years – in addition to worrying about a near non-existent defence and your team just losing it. And neither Arsene Wenger nor the club board-members and executives have done much to soothe these justified fears and worries of all the fans. For the last few seasons, transfer windows haven’t really meant a whole lot of excitement for Arsenal. This summer has been no different, and we’re still a few weeks away from the transfer deadline of August 31. There are many questions – will Samir Nasri and/or Cesc Fabregas still be wearing the red and white this season? With the well-documented tendency for injuries, will the ever-thin squad depth of the Arsenal be enough to sustain them throughout the season? Will we still have a Champions League spot come May 2012? And most importantly – what the hell is going to happen to our ever-leaky defence? Are we going to be able to handle losing yet another defensive player (aka Gael Clichy, who, in spite of all his mistakes, was still a good, experienced player) without any additional bolstering? Are we actually going to sign any more players (hopefully the likes of Mertesacker, Cahill, Jagielka and Mata) before September begins?

To add to all these concerns, Arsenal have been handed one of the toughest starts to the season, where they play twice a week for the entire month of August – the campaign starts away at Newcastle, followed by the home leg against Udinese in the CL qualifier, followed by Liverpool’s visit to the Emirates, followed by the away leg of the Udinese match, and finally to top it off,  a visit to Old Trafford. Fun times ahead …

Arsenal fans have a right to be disgruntled, unhappy and frustrated. The repeated reassurances that “we know what is wrong and we are taking measures to rectify them” are not instilling adequate confidence. My faith is certainly shaken, but all I’d like to say to fellow Gooners, plead even, is this – our team deserves to be supported, no matter what. Yes, we have a right to demand better performances, and a better situation than what has been for the past few seasons. It is only fair, and we are not wrong in wanting our team to win. We have every right to wish for silverware sooner rather than later, and I am not asking for continued patience or mute acceptance of Wenger’s tactics.

But what have we got to gain by constantly criticising them? There has been, and continues to be enough negativity and nay-sayers surrounding the team from all quarters, without us fans adding to the mix. But Wenger’s not a fool. Extremely and exasperatingly stubborn, yes. And neither are the players. They know where they’ve gone wrong, and they will be as eager as us, if not more, to finally break the trophy drought. I’m not suggesting that by us simply supporting the team, we can turn them into champions. This won’t happen without the necessary additions to the squad, and a paradigm shift in the approach. We need the right balance between youth and experience. We can offer solutions and analysis and then be exasperated when things still don’t change. But why not put positive energy into unconditional support for the team, at the same time?

They have put us through enough heart-break, and gut-wrenching moments since 2005, and I don’t blame any fan for not wanting to get their hopes up, or even block themselves from the sheer pain. I am not even foolish enough to suggest that we are good enough to win the League. (To be honest, I’ll be happy enough with another top 4 finish at this stage) But come Saturday, I’ll still be wholeheartedly supporting them because they’re “my team” and I love following them no matter what. Yes, I’m being cliché, and possibly foolishly optimistic, but I still believe in the core of the club I have continued to be in love with since 2002-2003, and that bond is unlikely to ever change. Which is why, in spite of all my worries and doubts, I’m still insanely excited to have my weekends occupied with football again! Come on you Gunners!!!

Destiny beckons :)

February has always been one of my favourite months. I mean, it was when I was born, of course I’m going to have a soft corner for it! However, since the year 2008, I have also been aware (rather uneasily) of a bit of a “jinx” surrounding the month – particularly around the last week, which is when my birthday is. The jinx refers to football, and Arsenal. It all started on February 23, 2008. Arsenal, sitting pretty at the top of the table, were playing Birmingham City at St. Andrews. A win would guarantee a firmer hold over the rest of the title rivals, and put the Gunners eight points clear at the summit. That day was also my 19th birthday. And incidentally, it will also be remembered as the day when Arsenal’s Eduardo Da Silva suffered that horrible leg break, the Gunners let Birmingham equalise deep into injury time, William Gallas infamously had his crying “sit-down” on the St Andrews pitch post the final whistle, and unfortunately it saw the slide of Arsenal into fourth place by the end of the season.

I didn’t think anything of it, apart from it being extremely unlucky that one of the strongest memories of my 19th birthday would be the images of Eduardo’s splintered tibia and fibula. And 2009 was definitely not as bad as 2008. But the month did not yield us even a solitary Premier League win, forcing us to be satisfied with a 1-0 victory over AS Roma at home in the Champions League, and a 4-0 win over Cardiff City at the Emirates in the FA Cup. However, the return of Eduardo in style, with 2 goals scored was one of the most heartening and heart-warming images for Gooners around the world. But, little did we know, that his previous red-hot form on that return from injury, would in fact never be fully restored, even decreasing, as sad as it still is to admit.

2010 however was another blow. It was February 27 and Arsenal were playing away to Stoke at the Britannia Stadium. The fact that we went on to win the match 3-1 showed just how much we’d learned from our previous Birmingham experience. But the ugly truth was that yet another leg was broken and yet another Arsenal player had to be stretchered off the pitch. That it was the young Welshman, Aaron Ramsey, who had been in great form all season, just made it worse to bear. I am sure, no Gooner will ever forget these images – neither of Dudu, nor of Ramsey.

So, this time, in 2011, when yet another Arsenal-Stoke encounter was scheduled for my birthday, you cannot fault me for being extremely apprehensive, and even a bit scared. A professional 1-0 victory and no serious injuries did calm my nerves, and even got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, the jinx is starting to lift. But then I heard about Walcott’s ankle sprain, and Fabregas’ tweaked hamstring – minor injuries that nonetheless prevent them from playing against Birmingham City at Wembley tomorrow, in the first show-piece of the season.

But, jinx or not, the Gunners are as close as they possibly can be to the first trophy since the May of 2005. And ultimately, no amount of superstition and silly worrying is going to matter. What will matter is their never-say-die spirit, their determination and hunger to win, their self-belief, and their strong desire to repay the love and support of all the fans, as well as the faith and belief Le Prof has invested in them. They certainly deserve it on the strength of performances and a new found steel in their attitude this season. They also deserve it for sticking to Wenger’s and Arsenal Football Club’s philosophy of how the game should be played, and giving supporters, haters and neturals some beautiful football in the process.

It all comes down to what happens in the 90 plus minutes tomorrow at Wembley. I am going to be a nervous wreck of a Gooner Girl, and emotionally drained by the end of it, irrespective of the result. It’s games like these that I live for, that we all dream for when it comes to “our team.” It is their time. Destiny beckons for this group of youngsters and others alike. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!!!

Arsenal: Lucky number 3? Or is it 1?

1 and 3 seem to be the preferred Arsenal numbers at the moment. Though I’d personally favour 3 over 1 any day! Today, however was not one of those days. Yay to Robin Van Persie for his brilliant hattrick which had trademark RVP goals – superb finishes, delightful on the eyes, and oh so simple 🙂 Equal boos for his missed penalty. Now, I’m not one to moan about a 3-0 victory, but you don’t expect Van Persie to take such a ghastly penalty now, do you? It was hopefully just a two second phase that has already passed. What’s that you say? Agreed? Good.

“Persie_Official Robin van Persie
1st off all thank you all for your nice messages. I’m very pleased with my hattrick today. Sorry for the penalty, promise next one will go in”

What hasn’t been said about this season so far? If I can hazard a guess, not much at all. It’s a difficult road indeed if I decide I will not write until I can find something that hasn’t been written about. And I’m not just talking about football here. I’m a writer, duh!

Okay, so the Gunners. I wasn’t too pleased with the performances against Leeds (The 1-1 draw) or Ipswich Town (I mean honestly, a championship side that has been beaten 7-0 by Chelsea who have been in such a rough patch, and we lose 1-0?) Okay the difference of one goal won’t be a problem for Arsenal to overturn on Tuesday, especially at the Emirates, but it was the attitude of the players that worried me that night more than anything. Call it lack of motivation, complacency, just a bad day at the office – what may have you … it’s understandable. I mean, it’s a lot to ask of anyone to perform at the top level week in and week out, a lot of the times (like now) more than once in a week – but these players have reached that level because they’re better than the others, and because they do have the ability to do it. Belief and motivation (especially when there’s a trophy, if not more, to be won!) are going to be the two most important things for the Gunners during the second half of the season.

Notable mentions?

Szczesny has been brilliant in the injury absence of Fabianski (that looks like it’ll continue for a while) – assured, sharp reflexes, not too many glaring errors, calm head etc. Definitely someone I’m looking forward to seeing more!

Nasri has been consistently scintillating this season and I’m happy to see that it continues in the new year – Na Na Na Na Nasri!!!

The return from injury and great form of the duo – Fabregas and Van Persie has been key to the team’s performances, and more importantly their mentality. Definitely a major boost 🙂

Walcott and Wilshere are improving with every single game, and that can only be good news for Wenger and Arsenal.

Alex Song has been consistently reassuring and amazingly solid as ever. I am however, worried about his HORRIBLE new look – taking a leaf out of Abel Xavier, are we? The rest of the team need to help him out! I propose a “How I Met Your Mother” style intervention 😀

Johan Djourou has been immense this season. Yes, he has made mistakes. But for the most part, he’s been solid in defence.

The increased vigour and physicality with which we are playing these days. It’s nice to see the Gunners get in some nice tackles and hold their own physically against teams who try to bully them and get the ball off them. Definitely an improvement. Also the desire to get the ball back when not in possession. I have not seen the whole team work together like this in that area, in a long time!

Dishonourable mentions?

Defence. It’s been the Arsenal code-word this season for “disaster.” We seem better recently, but you can’t run the squad of a world class team (which is the only one in the EPL still in the running for all 4 trophies) with just three fit centre-backs. Vermaelen is supposed to be back in 6 weeks but the way his injury has gone, there is no guarantee (which is SUCH a shame because we’ve missed our favourite Belgian holding the fort) so I certainly hope that Wenger is not all talk – we need another centre-back, I will definitely bolster our defence, etc etc.

Arshavin and Bendtner. Okay I am used to Bendtner’s flashes of good football mixed in amongst all the c**p, but the Arshavin we have been seeing this season is a stranger. Where is the cheeky brilliant Russian we were used to seeing in the Number 23? Something’s definitely not right, and I’m hoping with all my heart that there is a quick solution to that problem. I cannot bear to see him like this any longer 😦

General profligacy in front of goal. Today was a prime example. Yes we won 3-0 and yes Al-Habsi (as well as the Wigan defence) was immense in the first half but c’mon people! This is ARSENAL we are talking about. They need to be getting the goals equal to their domination of the opposition (which in today’s game was pretty much ALL the time. HOW we ended up being just 1-0 up at half-time is beyond me) Every game, especially ones against better opposition, are not going to be so gracious with chances. We need to be better at finishing. And killing games.

Well. That’s all this Gooner Girl can muster at the moment. Nothing new. Nothing extraordinary. Nothing that hasn’t been said before. But come on you Gunners! Wembley awaits 🙂

Happy New Year Gunners!

While it has been a somewhat tumultuous week in terms of football, I’d still say most Gunners would not be too unhappy about 3 games played, 7 points in the bag, and a third place going into 2011.

However, this does not mean that we are not allowed to be exasperated with those 2 dropped points. They will hurt. And we have every right to feel a bit aggrieved. Especially after this has been the sort of Gunners tendency that has tended to let them down in past seasons. Cruising at 2-1 with the opposition reduced to ten men does not immediately translate into 2-2 final time courtesy own goal from the team in front.

Yet another own goal by an Arsenal player is certainly not welcome. Though, I am not going to mention bad referee decisions including a certain penalty that should have gone Arsenal’s way immediately after Squillaci had inadvertently headed into his own net. This was our own doing. 3 away points were ours to lose and that draw did feel like a loss, especially with table leaders United having dropped two points the day before at St. Andrews. How important are those dropped points going to be at the end of 38 games? Only time will tell

Two urgent key words for the Gunners in the New Year are consistency and defensive stability. I would still say that the Gunners are in with a chance at the title, and the Carling Cup is certainly ours to lose, so I would be foolish not to be hopeful. However, I am, as ever, cautious. Not because I don’t have faith in my team. But because I care too much.

The Birmingham City match was ideal to kick start a potentially successful 2011. Recent encounters against them, both at St. Andrews and at the Emirates have been physical. They like to get ‘stuck in’ and it has been proven to affect the Gunners. However, I was happy to see that the team was able to retain the improved physicality, refusal to be bullied, commitment to possession, and tackles when not in possession which they showed against Chelsea. That said, B. City were extremely lucky not to be down to nine men just before half-time. The culprits? Lee Bowyer and Roger Johnson. That’s all I’m going to say before any possible action by the FA.

However, I do admit that we were lucky on the whole, in terms of refereeing decisions. I am not completely sure about the free-kick that led to RVP’s opener for Arsenal, but hey, luck is a very fickle thing in the English Premier League and we’ve been on the wrong side of it far too many times for me to feel bad for Birmingham, or to complain. It was nice to see Van Persie get on the scoring sheet (albeit aided by a huge deflection) and though he missed two great opportunities to build up on his first goal, I am happy to slowly see him get back to the lethal RVP who has been so effective for the Gunners in the past.

Samir Nasri continues his superlative form – both in terms of creative play and goal-scoring. Cesc Fabregas is almost back to the El Capitan we love and love more. Walcott is still quite inconsistent at best but like I’ve said before, even if he keeps scoring and/or creating chances, like he has been, I’ll not grudge him the time he needs to get to that next level. Arshavin continues to be the very unusual mix of exasperatingly lazy and awe-inspiringly brilliant, but he seems to be getting somewhat of an impetus which can only be good news. Defence is still uncertain at best, especially when Birmingham floated in long balls, and then had Zigic come on as a second striker, but here’s to Fabianski building on some great saves and good performances!

Overall, a 3-0 away win at a ground where not many teams have gotten away with three points is a great way to start the New Year. We need to apply the same formula when we play against teams who play a similar style to Birmingham … that is, try to intimidate Arsenal with a physical style … a Man City visit to the Emirates awaits us, followed by the FA Cup game against Leeds on the weekend, followed by the Carling Cup semi-final against Ipswich next Wednesday.

Come on you Gunners!!!

Beating The Blues!

I doubt there is much I can add to the considerable mix of praise, awe, criticism, cynicism, sarcasm and other ‘-isms’ that have already crowded cyberspace and newsprints even before Mark Clattenburg blew the whistle at the Emirates Stadium on Monday night.

Christmas has come a bit late to North London but I am sure that none of the Gooners will be complaining about that. Two days late pales in comparison to a wait of more than 2 years. I remember November 30, 2008 in minute detail. It was the day I ‘inaugurated’ my prized Arsenal shirt – Number 4, Fabregas. It was also the last time (well, before yesterday) that we won against the mighty Blues. That it was at their stronghold of Stamford Bridge, was icing on the cake to say the least. A Robin Van Persie brace and a Johan Djourou own goal were responsible for our 2-1 victory. It took 2 years and almost a month for us to repeat that feat, albeit with a 3-1 scoreline. Both the above mentioned players were involved in yesterday’s win, and Djourou’s performance was especially heartening.

That is all in the past now. As is, to an extent, Monday’s win. Like I’ve said, a lot has been said and written about it already, and I’m not inclined to repeat or reiterate any of that. Or add more fuel to the fire. What I want to try and do is bring a little perspective and objectivity to the win, and what it means for the team we all love so much in the new year.

Let us go past all the accolades and the praise being heaped on Arsene Wenger’s “Boys” for defeating Carlo Ancelotti’s “Men”. Yes, they do indeed deserve it. Let’s put Chelsea’s current bad form aside for a minute. It is not possible to analyse or discuss Arsenal’s performance without taking their opponents into consideration. But let’s imagine we can. I’ll come to the effect of Chelsea’s perfomance in a bit.

With the exception of the sorely missed Thomas Vermaelen, it was after a long time that Le Prof was able to field a near full strength side. RVP still looks rusty in front of goal but it’s nothing that some more game time won’t fix. His footballing instincts and thinking and reflexes are as sharp as ever and it won’t take long for him to become his trademark lethal self. Fabregas showed why we miss our ‘El Capitan’ when he is absent, especially in the big games. His presence in the hole behind the lone striker was crucial and his passing visionary. And though it was only a glimpse of his potency, and Chelsea afforded him far too much space at times, that should not take anything away from the best game he has had in a long time. (Goal and assist were well deserved!)

Theo Walcott’s inclusion in place of the underperforming Andrei Arshavin was unexpected but hats off to him for not making Wenger regret the decision. I wouldn’t say his was a stellar performance, but if every start or sub yields a goal and an assist, I will take it for now! And statistically speaking, his well-struck goal showed presence of mind and good instincts, and was his 8th goal in 9 starts for Arsenal this season. Not bad for a guy who was brushed off for “not having a footballing brain.” Same goes for Arshavin. I am among the Arsenal fans who are equally rapturous and exasperated about this diminutive Russian. But if statistics are supposed to be a benchmark, then he is one of our best players of this season.

Defensively speaking, we are still leakier than a bucket with a million holes, and don’t inspire confidence at the best of times. The conceded goal was highly unnecessary and ensured that even a 2 goal cushion did not make me feel comfortable. However, I was pleased with the way we defended as a unit, and did not let the famous Chelsea ‘physicality’ overpower and overwhelm us as we have on numerous previous encounters. All ten players committed themselves to the task of defending when we didn’t have the ball, showed impressive hunger to intercept and tackle to restore possession, and generally showed no fear or hesitation in physical challenges. If I had to single out players, Johan Djourou put in a superb performance and completely paid off the faith put in him by Wenger on such a big occasion. Equally impressive was Alex Song. It is good for Arsenal that he can play as a proper defensive midfielder, and along with Jack Wilshere, add the necessary bite that was missing in our midfield. This stability, while helping our defence, also allows Fabregas and the two wingers more freedom and space to work their magic.

Okay, now brace yourselves. I am warning everyone beforehand that no blame can be rested upon my shoulders for spoiling or tarnishing the current upbeat mood surrounding the Emirates and all the Gooner community. Let me rush right into it without further fanfare or ominous background music.

Yes, Monday night’s win is something I am going to treasure. I couldn’t have got (and I am sure all Gooners will agree) a better holiday gift. It still feels surreal. A dream. If it is, it is a dream I sure don’t want to wake up from. Yet. The wait only made the victory sweeter. But I have never been one to be swept up in all the wonderful emotion of the moment for too long. Yes, it will definitely help boost our psyche and put some water over the ‘chokers in big games’ tag that we have been rightly saddled with for a while now. But yesterday was only one game. Three points that may turn out to be equally significant or insignificant at the end of a season that has just only reached its middle point. Consistency is what is going to matter. We have an average of two games per week for the next few and winning all of them will put us in the ‘potential title challengers’ category.

It definitely broke our ‘voodoo’ of games against Chelsea (Let’s hope this transfers to our game against Man Utd in the new year). But whether it was a turning point in the larger scheme of things, for this group of talented players remains to be seen. It pains me to say this but far too often have Arsenal threatened to be a team on the brink of greater things. Far too often have they had false starts, and flattered to deceive. And far too often have they been inconsistent and showed all the signs of a flawed genius, always a few small steps away from the pinnacle of greatness. It is definitely within reach.But it has been within reach for a few years now. “A team in transition” , “The team of the future”, “Wenger’s Young Guns” are tags we have been saddled with for far too long. It is time for us to finally live up to all the potential. Building a team takes time, and patience. We have had both of them. Now it looks like the boys are ready to finally become the men that they have shown the promise to be.

Is it yet another flash in the pan? Only time will tell. Will I keep believing in my team? Without a doubt. Good performances and 9 points in the away games against Wigan and Birmingham, followed by the visit of Manchester City to the Emirates, will be the best possible start to 2011. There are promises to keep and miles to go before they sleep.

Come on you Gunners!!!!

International Break – Gunner Recharge!

The international break which started from Monday, October 4, 2010 has been a welcome one for all the Gooners ( My assumptions are based on my own feelings, so the previous statement might not be 100% accurate) One wouldn’t even bother asking why. 3 EPL games. A maximum of 9 points at stake. The opponents, Sunderland (Away- The Stadium of Light), West Bromwich Albion (Home- The Emirates Stadium) and Chelsea (Away- Stamford Bridge) And what do the Gunners do? Come away with only 1 point, dropping 8, 5 out of which were wholly unnecessary.

But enough of the whining. I have already vented my frustrations about the first two matches of this infamous trip and so I should turn to the temporary Champions League respite before tackling (Pun unintended!) the blue heartbreak at Stamford Bridge.

Arsenal 3, Partizan Belgrade 1. Location: The FK Partizan Stadium. Definitely a night to smile for the Gooners, esp. after the Sunderland and West Brom games. Arsenal fielded a squad missing their talismans Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie, as well as important first-team players like Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott etc. Samir Nasri, another player who has been in fine form for his club side this season, was on the bench, giving company to Gael Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Emmanuel Eboue and Carlos Vela. However, the 11 men that walked onto the pitch in yellow and redcurrant that night, were far from inexperienced. And after a shaky start, also involving the temporary loss of floodlights, they definitely showed their intent and hunger to win.

It was a game that had everything. 3 penalties, penalty misses, great saves from both goalkeepers, 4 goals, smiles for the away fans, and of course, some entertaining football!

The win was also a relief ahead of a tough encounter with the West London Blues on their home ground. For the past few seasons, Chelsea has been the hurdle Arsenal has not been able to clear successfully, their last win against their local London rivals coming in the November of 2008 – a memorable 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge. Since then, however, the Gunners have seemed woefully inadequate to deal with the sheer physical might and presence of the current title holders. And just the name ‘Didier Drogba’ is enough to put fear in the hearts of the Gunner faithful. The Ivory Coast hitman has become a nemesis to such an extent that he has put 12 goals in 13 games (including the match in question) past the Gunners and he seems to personally relish every match against the Arsenal.

Chelsea 2, Arsenal 0. That was the final score at Stamford Bridge on the 3rd of October, 2010. But there was something else that didn’t quite fit the ‘same old story’ scenario. Another ingredient that made, even the realist in me, smile. Through the heartbreak and frustration of that Sunday. When we let slip chances faster than sand can slip through a closed fist.

Thoughts from that week?

– It was a very important away win in Belgrade. Not just for the 3 points and to keep on par with joint group leaders Shakhktar. But for the Arsenal morale and confidence.

– I couldn’t be more pleased to see Arsenal scoring more goals through headers. It has been one lacking skill in our armoury in the past seasons and I am happy to see this change, especially with the entry of the tall Moroccan Chamakh. Nice to see Squillaci open his Arsenal account as well.

– I have to say that I was happy to see Lukas Fabianski put in a superb performance. Aside from letting Cleo score that initial penalty, he made some excellent saves and made up for that conceded penalty by saving the second one. His reflexes definitely kept Arsenal in the game and prevented Partizan from grabbing a point or making life uncomfortable for the Gunners.

– It was even more heartening, despite the 2 conceded goals, to see Fabianski put in a much improved performance against his personal demons against Chelsea. He was confident, assured and though not completely water-tight, he showed quite a few glimpses of the talent and potential Wenger saw in him when he signed him.

– Don’t get wrong though. I am in no way saying that either Almunia or Fabianski are going to turn out to be top-notch, world class keepers. But consistent perfomances like in those 2 matches and they can help save more points for the team, than they concede. And to be very honest, performances like these, combined with a more solid defensive show can certainly help the Gunners from dropping crucial points and challenging for the title. Yes, we do need a world class keeper in the ranks of Shay Given or Maarten Stekelenburg. But lack of defensive support and protection has also played a part in making Almunia and Fabianski appear a lot worse than what they really are.

– Did we miss RVP and Fabregas in the Chelsea match? Of course we did. Both of them are top-class players that would be missed in any squad in any part of the world, whether their team won or lost. But I don’t think that is an excuse for our loss.

– Arsenal retreated into their old habits of missed chances and this was not a consequence of missing any injured players. The Gunners had two amazing opportunities to score in the first TWO minutes, and basically get a solid lead and mental boost. And they wasted them. Missed chances that definitely came back to haunt them. Once when Didier Drogba pounced on mistakes by the back four to slot in against the pole. And the second time when Alex scored a scorcher of a free-kick that left Fabianski rooted to the spot.

– However, in stead of being depressed about yet another loss to the men in blue, I made myself get some distance and saw some of the definitey positives.

– For one thing, Chelsea did not overpower or outplay the Gunners. Wenger’s Boys (and Men) were able to hold their own physically and even defensively for most of the game. This is a certain improvement from last season’s fixtures.

– So much has been said and written on the subject that all I can do is hope for Arsenal to get back to winning ways against Birmingham City this weekend. A Champions League game against joint Group H leaders Shakhtar (and a return for Eduardo) as well as tough trips to the Eastlands to play the currently 2nd placed Manchester City, and to St. James’ Park to play Newcastle United in the Carling Cup, await.

Till next time then. This is the Gooner Girl signing off on yet another busy week!

3 Bs (Blackburn, Bolton, Braga) = an A+? Yes please! With an extra-credit piece on “How to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory!”

I have to admit that I have been a somewhat ‘lax’ Gooner Girl for the past few weeks. Start of a new Uni year, returning to the rainy wonderland that is the north-west of England, my responsibilities as an International Student Assistant and a member of the Freshers Volunteer team, coupled by the lack of internet in my room for now. But my heart has certainly been with the Boys in red and white.

I do however have a LOT of match-time to catch up on. Which is why I’m trying something different for this article. Here goes – 

10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU:

1) The fact that we dropped 5 points in two consecutive games against teams we should have beaten.

2) The fact that we let slip a golden opportunity to close the gap between table-leaders and title holders Chelsea, on a day when they travelled to the Eastlands and were undone by a solitary Carlos Tevez goal.

3)The fact the we couldn’t finish off the game at the Stadium of Light when we had multiple chances, even with Song sent off.

4) The fact that stand-in captain Tomas Rosicky chose to step up to the plate himself when we were awarded a penalty, and a chance to make the score 2-0 in our advantage, and then proceeded to mistake some point a good few feet higher than the actual cross-bar to place his shot.

5) The fact that it was such a baffling decision, especially when Nasri and Chamakh were on the field – both of whom have scored with penalties for the Gunners in far more recent memory. We really wouldn’t be talking about Bent’s goal if that penalty had gone in now, would we? But then again, we missed multiple chances before and after the penalty, so it’s all water under the bridge.

6) The fact that we went 3 goals down at home against a newly promoted side that hasn’t beaten us in a very long time, before hero of the day, Nasri saved us some shame by his late strike.

7) The fact that we can be so brilliant against local rivals and new top-4 members Tottenham Hotspur on the Tuesday in an AWAY match and then struggle so much to find our stride at HOME against a team we should have beaten in any likelihood. Though, I have to say as much as it pains me, well done West Bromwich Albion! You were the team deserving of the three points.

8) Injuries, The bane of Arsenal for what seems like a very long time! I suspect it is a combination of very bad luck, something not quite right with the tackling, the treatment of being tackled in training and great players who are also quite injury-prone (Robin Van Persie and Walcott anyone?) With Fabregas, RVP, Theo, Vermaelen and the likes out injured, are we heading towards the position we were in last season?
That said the reinforcements seem to be in much better form and of much better quality this time around, with players ready to fill the shoes of those on the sidelines. Will that be good enough on a regular basis until the injured are back? Only time will tell.

9) The fact that after 3 seasons of having goalkeeping problems, we are still in the same situation. January transfer window to bring some hope? I wouldn’t hold my breath.
10) The fact that I don’t want to have to deal with yet another ‘almost there but not quite, oh well there’s always next year’ season. Though I’ll still be as hardcore a Gooner!
10 RECENT THINGS THAT HAVE MADE ME A HAPPY GOONER GIRL:

1) All the new signings – Maroune Chamakh, Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Kosicelny, seem to have been Gunners for the longest time already. Le Prof Wenger has still got the touch!

2) Cesc Fabregas, ‘Nuff said!

3) Arsenal’s systematic dismantling of the Portuguese side Braga and the back to back EPL wins against oft-nemeses Blackburn and Bolton.

4) I saved this for a separate point only because I wanted to savour it. Tottenham Hotspurs. White Hart Lane, Third Round of Carling Cup. Final score? Arsenal 4, Spurs 1!

5) The glimpses of the mental toughness, never-say-die attitude and the ability to win ‘ugly’ that have been inconsistently showcased by the Arsenal.

6) Arsenal’s artistic, elegant game in full flight that can also be so surprisingly lethal and devastating for the opposition. We have already had quite a bit of that so far and I’m not complaining!

7) Samir Nasri has been in brilliant and inspiring form for us this season. Here’s to hoping he keeps it up!

8) Ditto for Rosicky. Though not as much as Nasri, and keeping aside his terrible penalty miss, he has been playing a lot better than he did last season. It’s nice to see him finally showing some signs of going back to the player he was before the injury that laid him off for so long.

9) Carlos Vela. He has been highly impressive whenever he’s got a chance to play and I think this will be the break-out year for him. Le Prof just needs to give him more playing time.

10) Youth. The likes of Wilshere, Gibbs, Vela, Ramsey (Set to return next month, yay!) getting to play first-team football on a regular basis and having consistently impressive games. 

RANDOM TIDBITS:

1) Will Wojciech Szczsny and Vito Mannone finally get more play time? Especially now that Manuel Almunia is injured?
2) That said, I am not going to lie about my happiness at the Shay Given-Maarten Stekelenberg rumours for the January transfer window. Fingers and toes and legs and arms crossed? Yes yes yes!
3) Chamakh does need RVP and Nicklas Bendtner to help him man the front-line more successfully and with less effort. But I love the fact that his eye for goal is accompanied by a very hard work-ethic that makes sure he is as involved in putting the ball into the opponents’ nets, as he is in getting the ball back and working the mid-field when his team lose possession.
4) Squillaci has been pretty solid so far. And he is exactly what the doctor, or in this case Le Prof ordered. Strong, tall, commanding, quiet, efficient and assured. He has combined brilliantly with the other Frenchman and newcomer Koscielny to strengthen the back-line in the absence of every Gooner’s favourite Belgian, Thomas Vermaelen. Once he is back from injury, we will be more solid at the back than we have been in a long long time.
5) And finally, here’s to the Gunners getting back to winning ways in what is going to be a tough week – facing Partizan Belgrade at their home ground tonight and the formidable Chelsea on the weekend at Stamford Bridge. Never a better chance to show what we are made of! Come on the Arsenal!!!

Arsenal Pass Blackburn Test Of Strength

A hard fought 2-1 win against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park will certainly have made this a good weekend for all the Gooners. Last season, none of the top teams were able to come away with 3 points on that ground. Even if it is still very early in the season, these are three very crucial points in the bag as far as Arsenal are concerned. Of late, games away to the likes of Blackburn, Stoke, Bolton etc with their much-discussed about ‘physical football’ have always been ear-marked as potential pit-falls and points dropped for the Gunners’ passing style of football. That said, we had started to show that we can ‘win ugly’ last season but that evaporated somewhere along the way with all the injuries and what not.

So it was heartening to see us get a goal in first, fight back after Blackburn had equalised, get the winning goal and defend the score-line, showing a certain mental resilience in the process, that does seem to go missing at times when most needed for men in red and white. For all of Blackburn’s ‘physicality’, it was a relatively clean game with the first yellow coming only in the 74th minute, and it was good to see the Arsenal passing game see them through the first tough test of the season.

The opening goal, against the run of play, was vintage Arsenal and all the players involved in the build-up did their job well – Song, Arshavin, Robin Van Persie and of course Walcott. The Dutchman controlled the ball beautifully and spotting the run of Walcott, played in a perfectly weighted ball in the path of the young Englishman, who didn’t even have to break stride. It was evidence of Theo’s newly-found confidence, composure and form, that he took one touch and fired a low shot in the bottom left corner that left the net needing repairs at half-time! Like Wenger said in his post-match conference, even though the number 14 wasn’t as involved in the play as in the match versus Blackpool, he stepped up and scored the goal when the team needed it, and was unlucky not to get two goals towards the end of the game. That’s all you want from a centre-forward.

I don’t know what Wenger’s half-time talk consisted of, but it certainly did the job! The Gunners seemed to settle in quicker after the break, show more confidence, not give away the ball cheaply, show more composure and intelligence in possession and generally avoid committing too many fouls in potentially dangerous areas. (Fab seemed more his real self and settled in too) The build-up and the actual winning goal when it came, was delightfully Arsenal as ever. Sagna did really well on the right, before cutting back to a still not completely match fit Cesc Fabregas, who had a shot at goal. Unluckily for him it bounced back, but luckily for Arshavin and Arsenal in general, it bounced off Theo Walcott into the path of the dimunitive Russian, who coolly slotted past Robinson and a couple of Blackburn defenders. A small note on Wilshere though. It was his inexperience that led him to miss that sitter, which Walcott so unselfishly provided, but he’s definitely a talent who needs to make the most of first-team opportunities this season, to go from ‘promising youngster’ to a ‘finished’ player.

The bottom-line is that the guys do deserve much applause for passing this stern test without dropping any points. It is wins in tough games like this which will matter in the run-in towards the final weeks. However, once the jubilation following the weekend win dies down, what remains are the same potential frailties that have prevented us from winning silverware since the spring of 2005. So, defensive instability, injury concerns and a potential finale to the ongoing goalkeeping saga are the topics I’m going to concentrate on this week, rather than talk about the positives which were very clear for all to see.

I felt that we dealt with Blackburn’s aerial threat very well. Especially in the first half when the home team had their periods of intense dominance and battering of the Arsenal defence with consecutive corners and long balls and very impressive and penetrating long throws by the ever annoying Norwegian Morten Gamst Pedersen (who, by the way, seems to have taken a … ummm … towel out of the book of a certain Rory Delap. That’s all I’m going to say!) The Londoners did look vulnerable during that time, but they managed to hold Sam Allardyce’s men at bay.

That said, defensive worries need to be at the top of Wenger’s ‘Look into and amend ASAP’ list. Blackburn’s equaliser was a very Arsenal-esque goal with wide, fluid movement, pace and them pretty much passing the ball into the net. A Double Diouf? (Haha, sorry couldn’t resist!) What was more disconcerting was the fact that we let them! After Sagna got caught too high up the field, newcomer Koscielny got a very harsh taste of the speed and the physicality of the EPL when he found himself thrust aside after a tussle with El-Hadji Diouf on the left flank and near the left-corner flag. Diouf then proceeded to cross the ball in towards his very much unmarked namesake Mame Biram Diouf, who coolly tapped in from close range. Both Gael Clichy and Thomas Vermaelen failed to deal with the threat of both the cross and the tall striker, on loan from Manchester United. Clichy didn’t seem to register the simple fact that Diouf had strayed into the penalty area. It was a very cheap goal to concede and Arsenal really cannot afford to make it a habit – even if they can continue to score more goals than they let in … which is a big IF in itself, as there are going to be days when even the solitary goal is going to be hard to come by.

Apart from Thomas Vermaelen, none of our first-choice back four have the presence or command of a Sol Campbell or a Lauren or even an Ashley Cole in the days of the Invincibles. This is the reason why I am keen to see what Squillaci can bring to the field. We really do need an experienced, assuring and commanding centre-back to steady and strengthen the defensive forces, and get the best out of them.

Second concern should be keeping all of our players as injury free and fit as possible … and already, just three games into the new season, we have Nasri out for a month due to minor knee surgery and RVP facing an uncertain (It was a couple of weeks at last call) spell on the side-lines. The Dutchman just cannot seem to catch a break, huh? I mean, how injury-prone and/or unlucky can any one player be? Especially one who is so amazing for us when completely fit and in fine form. *Triple sigh* Fingers crossed that both will be raring to go and firing on all cylinders very soon!

And, finally … will tomorrow’s transfer window closure put an end to the summer long speculation of a new man between the Arsenal goal-posts? Will it bring with it a fitting finale, in form of Mark Schwarzer’s arrival, to the ongoing goal-keeper saga Arsenal have going on with Fulham? We can only wait and watch. The news at the moment is that Shay Given will NOT be given out on loan or sold to any rival English club by the Man City brigade. So much for healthy competition, ay? So, that rules him out as a potential GK for the Gunners as was a rumour. It also rules him out on loan to Fulham, who, in the light of a decent replacement, were then ready to release Schwarzer to make the move across London. But, another piece of information floating around the transfer news is that Reading keeper, Adam Federici is being sized up as a potential replacement for the Australian.

Most Gooners would be very happy with Schwarzer’s arrival tomorrow. I have never said that Almunia is terrible. He actually had a good game against Blackburn, being unusually aggressive, commanding the back-line and his box well and making some good saves. But he will need to back it up with a host of similar performances to restore the Gooner faith. And I’m just not sure he has the quality required to be top-class, week in and week out. Who knows, though? I could totally be proved wrong! It’s something I really wouldn’t mind 🙂

All in all, second place is a good position to be in, going into a break!

Lucky Number Six?

Reasons to smile for all Gooners!

Rosicky – Definitely deserved the MOM Award. He was the elegant and dazzling puppet-master pulling the strings in midfield, creating spaces and chances and delivering pin-point passes in the absence of Fabregas and the injured Nasri. He was out of sorts last season after his long-term absence due to injury and all Gooners, myself included, are definitely happy to see Rosicky show solid glimpses of the form he had pre-injury. Here’s to it lasting for the season!

Walcott – 3 extremely well-taken goals will certainly help his case with Capello and all the detractors who have long labelled him as the perennial ‘enormous potential but no finished product’ man. He has been steadily improving over the past few months and it was good to see his confidence and composure in front of goal, especially in combination with his ferocious pace which has always been a major asset. Always good to see him start taking set-pieces for the team, any additional skill is always useful! I’ve always said that this is his season to step up and prove once and for all that he’s reliable, match-winning, first-team material. Yesterday was a very good start towards that cause!

The sight of Captain Cesc and New Number 10, Robin Van Persie, warming up on the touchline certainly brought a huge smile on the face of every Gooner on the planet! Both looked in good enough touch to start the next match and RVP also put in the assist which gave Maroune Chamakh his first-ever EPL goal – a beautiful curler which was perfectly floated in for the Moroccan’s head to help it into the back of the net.

Diaby and Wilshere seemed to be at ease with their new roles, on a day when Alexandre Song was playing as the makeshift centre-back, filling the gap left by the red-carded Koscielny. Wilshere did well for his assist in Theo’s second goal and I think more regular first-team football will give him the chance and experience he needs to make the transition to first-choice.
Nice to see Arshavin be more involved in the creative processes on the field, rather than the meek shadow he was against Liverpool last Sunday. Well-struck penalty too!

I know it was only Blackpool yesterday, but based on the performances, I am optimistic about our options and form in midfield and up-front. Granted, that we won’t get a chance with every team to pass around the ball as much, and as fluidly as we did yesterday, but with similar form, minimum injuries and the return of Nasri and Ramsey, we should be okay. And also, it was a boost to see the variety of the goals scored, as well as the number of goal scorer

You have to give credit to Maroune Chamakh. On another day, he would have got a hat-trick before half-time and atleast 2 after the break. But call it ‘not his day’ and he just couldn’t find the back of the net! However, far from feeling sorry for himself, he had a commendable work-ethic and helped in the movement of the ball and the creation of chances for others, and deservedly got his goal in the 90th minute. After all, it was his debut home game and only his 2nd EPL game and I think he did well!

Blackpool were unlucky with that red card. Yes it was a foul, a definite penalty and certainly in the penalty area (though the challenge started from outside the box) But in other circumstances it deserved a yellow. Unlucky for Blackpool that (Insert name) was the last man! We had already taken control of the game by then but it would have been interesting to see what the 11 on 11 contest would have been like!

On a day when the Arsenal Clock Tower was reinstated at the Emirates and the North End and Clock End were restored, this classy 6-0 was the perfect gift the team could have given the fans and everyone involved with Arsenal!

On the flip-side (Yes, there always is one!)

Defence – Arsenal’s defense and Almunia didn’t have much to do, especially after Blackpool were reduced to ten men, but they did not create a feeling of complete confidence (They haven’t done that in a very long time, to be honest!) It will take better teams and teams which will push the defenders more, to see how the back-line holds up and whether it will be up to the task. That said, I’ll be extremely happy if Wenger announces a new defensive/GK signing before August 31. He has said that there will be at least one new face by September, maybe even more. But with Le Prof, it always remains to be seen!

Another potential worrying point would be the missed scoring chances. It might be a good idea to work on more focused composure in possession and in front of the goal on the days when the chances won’t be as many as they were this time around.

Overall, a top-notch, fluid, mesmerising Arsenal performance, and three points in the bag in style!

Liverpool 1 – 1 Arsenal: One For The Neutrals!

Where are my manners? First of all, all the Gooners should heartily thank the guy who had a ‘I can do this much better than Robert Green’ moment. If not for his fumble of catastrophic proportion, it would have been a sorry start to the season indeed. Always be thankful for the small mercies, just took on a deeper meaning! Jokes apart, my mood would be distinctly different had we given up the three points to Liverpool today. And I’m also somewhat in the position to be magnanimous to the Liverpool keeper who had an excellent game otherwise, making some amazing saves – Walcott and Rosicky’s curlers and Vermaelen’s first half free-kick, in particular. We would have certainly scored more than 1 goal if not for his fine saves.

Call this jumping to conclusions, but all my defensive worries with only Kosicelny coming in after the departure of the Campbell-Gallas-Silvestre trio, came true. The Ngog goal was superbly taken by the young Frenchman but the defensive lapses that gave him the opportunity to shoot were inexcusable, as was Almunia’s positioning. The back-four looked shaky throughout the 90 odd minutes and this is the most urgent area which needs work and repair. My heart, for one, is certainly not going to withstand many final quarters of the game similar to today! It was also apparent that we terribly missed the reassuring presence of Alexandre Song anchoring the midfield and defence.

Liverpool, to their credit, used half-time to reorganise and mentally psyche themselves beyond belief from the harsh sending off of Joe Cole, and came into the second half stronger than ever. Away at Anfield, on the opening day of the season is always going to be a tough fixture. Even with the state of Liverpool last season. But it was a ‘same old Arsenal’ scenario which is ‘so last year’. And the year before that. And before that. I’m not saying we are going to be this bad every game. But it was shameful that we had to rely on a last-minute comical gaffe from Reina to draw a game which we should have won in all probability. We were one man stronger than them. And the better attacking side. With more chances. But as we are so frustratingly prone to do, we wasted good chances, passed around the ball when we should have shot at goal, and were defensively shakier than a one-legged man. Plus, as I’ve said before, we came up against an impressive Reina performance in goal. Granted, that teams always need a bit of luck (Man Utd comes to mind), and to be fair, we did fight manfully after going a goal down. But it was the possibility that we really haven’t learned anything from past seasons that was more worrying.

Arsenal’s midfield terribly missed the presence of talismanic captain Cesc Fabregas, and Jack Wilshere’s inclusion did not add much to the ammunition. However, he’s still very much a young player and will hopefully learn from these mistakes. Arsenal were certainly the better attacking force but the new formation also played its part in not giving them a ‘settled in’ feel. I am not too sure whether I am in favour of this 4-5-1 in place of last season’s 4-4-2 which was much more successful. Or maybe its apparent non-success was down to Chamakh’s inexperience in the EPL. Or the fact that with Bendtner injured and RVP lacking match-fitness, Wenger was forced to play the Moroccan as the lone man up front. Only a few more matches will really show results in favour or against.

There were however some positives. Rosicky and Walcott both played their cameo parts brilliantly after coming on from the substitute bench. Both were highly unlucky not to have a goal each to their name after superb saves from the Spaniard in goal. Chamakh had an alright debut game and wasted a few chances but definitely seems like a bright prospect. Nasri had a good game as well, though he was prone to some hesitation and over-passing. (He should be even more effective as part of a pair with Fabregas) Arshavin, on the other hand, did not have his annual ‘I love Anfield so much I’m going to score at least once’ perfomance and was quite disappointing. RVP looked lacking in match practice and I for one, think that pairing him up with Chamakh up front is going to be much more effective for the Gunners.

Teams, results, players’ performances, errors, points apart, Martin Atkinson is probably going to be the centre of controversy and discussion. Joe Cole’s lunge on Koscielny hardly merited a red. Especially after Jack Wilshere’s dangerous tackle just minutes before was only shown a yellow. Little did Kosicelny know that he would have a debut to remember for the wrong reasons. I doubt he would have imagined getting 2 successive yellow cards in injury time! For me, the second one, for handball was a bit harsh as it was quite unintentional and unavoidable, and not much different from Ngog’s, earlier in the match.

Final verdict? Not the ideal performance to start off the season by any standards and there’s a lot to be done … But it could have been so much worse and I’d take a thrilling last-minute comeback + 1 point at Anfield any day over no points at all! I think most Gooners will be with me on this, right?

PS: A couple of the choicest words might be necessary to shake the Arsenal so that they face the reality of today’s game, which they made more difficult for themselves. But all praises to a 10-man Liverpool for a gutsy second-half performance!