Arsenal End 2009 In Style

Arsenal closed out the calendar year of 2009 on a high with a 4-1 victory at Fratton Park. It was a cold, mid-week December evening on the south coast, yet an Arsenal side shorn of their two most important players still came away with a very convincing win. Yes, Pompey are bottom of the league, but, coming into the match, Pompey were 12th in the form table over the last six matches.

Arsenal’s four goals gave them 51 goals in their 19 league matches so far. That means that, mathematically, they are on pace to score 102 goals this season. Yet it is highly doubtful the club can replicate the same number of 4+ goal performances in the second half of the season, especially with van Persie, Bendtner, and Walcott habitually injured.

A few players deserve to be singled out from yesterday’s match, most of all, Alex Song. He was immense in midfield and, in the last year, has been transformed into one of the premier defensive midfielders in the Premier League. His work rate is enormous, his ability to hold the ball, mark tightly, and his distribution are all first-class.

Song was everywhere on the Pompey pitch. His attacking play is improving as well as he is now more selective about when to make forward runs and fully join in the attack. I believe that he has become just as important to this team as Flamini was in 2007-08. His work in midfield gives the rest of the midfield and front line the confidence needed to attack with an almost reckless abandon. Song, along with Gallas and Vermaelen, is this side’s irreplaceable players. Without Song, the Arsenal puzzle cannot be complete and that will be the case when he leaves for the African Cup of Nations next week.

Abou Diaby continues to go from strength to strength this season and was rewarded for it with a new contract. Diaby seems to be going through the beginning stages of Matheiu Flamini/Alex Song Syndrome. You know what that is… when a player seems to have no chance of making it for years and then out of nowhere turns into an indispensable part of the side.

I’ve always rubbished the comparisons of Diaby to Vieira, mostly because Diaby is a far more attack-minded player than Vieira was and his utter lack of ability or commitment when defending. However, seeing him making those powerful runs through the center of midfield with those long strides is a bit reminiscent of our former captain. Diaby even made some nice tackles last night. I’m not saying he can now be compared to Patrick Vieira, but he is definitely improving in areas where he has been sorely lacking in recent seasons.

Aaron Ramsey’s play overall on the night was pretty solid having assisted on Samir Nasri’s goal and then scored a stunner himself. Ramsey’s potential is indisputable and last night we also saw a bit of hardness as well as flash as he was subjected to a few very rough challenges. Samir Nasri also had a fine match. Nasri looks quite a different player since his arrival 16 months ago. His ability to hold the ball by using his increased strength has immensely improved this season. He has also developed more comfort and confidence in wide areas than when he arrived.

Another big key to Arsenal’s form this season has been the steadiness of the central defense. Gallas and Vermaelen have developed a great understanding having started every Premier League match together this season. I believe that Gallas was hampered in his partnership with Kolo Toure. Toure is not a natural center-back and I now realize that Gallas was made to look bad due to his lack of confidence in and compensation for his partner. But now, being paired with a strong, left-footed natural center-back, Gallas is free to worry about his job alone and he has excelled.

5 wins in six matches since the Chelsea defeat has brought Arsenal to Chelsea’s door, even more so should we win our game-in-hand home to Bolton on the sixth of January. It’s amazing to see so many pundits still not considering us as legitimate challengers for the title. Yes, Arsenal lost to United, Chelsea, and City, but we should have beat United, had a fluke against Chelsea and the City match was just strange. However, United won the league two years ago with a mediocre record against the other big 4 sides. It’s matches like last night that need to be won consistently to finish top of the table and Arsenal’s only hiccup in that department has been the Sunderland match.

Whether or not Arsenal can win the title will depend on whether or not Eduardo can regain his lethal finishing, Carlos Vela can take his chances, and the central defense and midfield stays relatively injury-free. In a run of matches beginning January 27th, Arsenal will face Villa away, home to United and Liverpool, and away to Chelsea. And all that within 15 days. The ACN final will be played on January 31st, meaning Song could conceivably miss at least two of those crucial four matches.

In other teams news, as reported above, Abou Diaby has agreed to a new contract with the club. Cesc is expected to be 50/50 for the Everton match on January 9th. Theo Walcott is expected to be out for two weeks and Nicjlas Bendtner is still three weeks away from returning.

In the interesting statistics category… in the calendar year of 2009, Arsenal scored more goals and lost less matches than any other team in the Premier League.

Arsenal Station’s Decade in Review

This week, Arsenal Station will look back at the decade that has come and gone with a few features including a few decade review articles from me and our guest contributors and a piece with my own personal rankings of the players and moments or matches of the decade. Enjoy and Happy New Year!

And so another decade has passed in our club’s long and glorious history-perhaps, its most glorious decade yet. Herbert Chapman and George Allison’s dynasty won 5 league titles and one F.A. Cup in the 1930s. In the decade past, Arsenal have won 2 league titles and 3 F.A. Cups. Yet the dynamics of the game, as sport and business, and the league has changed so much, that I tend to think trophies are much harder to win nowadays. Either way, those of us who have followed the club throughout the decade know that we were lucky enough to witness something very special. It was a decade full of dozens of magical moments-the kind of moments that are the reason anyone watches football or follows a club. We experienced many unprecedented highs over the last ten years that, at the close of the decade, it is worth recalling a few, though space restricts me from mentioning everything worthy of recognition.

For me, three moments stand out as the most satisfying. First was the match at Old Trafford on May 8th, 2002. Coming four days after goals from “It’s only” Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg had secured our second F.A. Cup trophy under Arsene Wenger, the club traveled north and sealed their second double in four years with a single goal by Sylvain Wiltord. Ever since the double in ’98, we had played second fiddle to United and had to endure the pain of watching them win the treble in a season in which I still think we were the better side. The satisfaction following that league title was priceless.

It’s also a bit sentimental as 2001-02 was the first title-winning season in which I was able to see a majority of the matches. I started following the club in late 1997 and for the first few years was lucky if a dozen matches all season were broadcast here in the States. Perhaps, more importantly though, 2001-02 was the launching pad for a 4-year run during which Arsenal played a class of football not seen before in England or many other places. And I still firmly believe that the Arsenal side from 2001-2005 was the greatest team in Premier League history, if not all of English football history. Of course, the lack of a European trophy means many people will never consider them in the same way as say Liverpool and Nottingham Forest of the 70s and 80s. But, domestically, the amount of records the club broke and the style in which they did it in has no match.

The second and third moments have to do with the unbeaten run. Closing out 2003-04 unbeaten still takes my breath away when I think about. I remember knowing what a big deal it was at the time, however, I now feel as though that achievement has somehow become underrated in English football history. Domestically, 2003-04 was as close as you can get to a perfect season. To go unbeaten, win the league at White Hart Lane, and come from behind in the final game to seal the record at home was better than a movie script. Especially considering the sticky business at Pompey a week and a half earlier.

While the match against Blackburn broke Nottingham Forest’s record, it was the previous match against Middlesbrough that remains far more memorable for me. 1-nil up and cruising into the break, quick goals on either side of the interval saw us behind and when Queudrue’s shot whistled past an out-of-position Jens Lehmann, it looked like the jig was up. But before the full level of despair could set in, Bergkamp had waltzed up to the box and brought the match back to 3-2. Something had clicked and you would be hard-pressed to recall another instance where a team with the lead looked such unlikely winners. A goal by Pires and another from Reyes off the re-start and Boro was sunk and the record equaled.

The caliber of player we have seen wear an Arsenal shirt in this decade is just astounding. For me, it was an absolute honor to watch players like Bergkamp, Henry, and Pires on a weekly basis and, as time goes by, I become more attuned to the fact that it is highly unlikely I will see players like that lining up in the red-and-white again. Don’t get me wrong, we are seeing some great players now, but there is a big difference between this and the previous Arsenal sides.

Coverage of the club here in the States in the early part of the decade was hit or miss. I was able to see maybe half of the club’s league matches by driving long distances and paying cover charges, but I had to follow the rest over the internet and in day-old, overpriced English newspapers. The reward was well worth the effort, however. Recent American fans of PL football are spoiled for choice as no less than 8 matches are shown every weekend on American television, with about half of them carried live. And, with a satellite package or broadband subscription, you can watch them all. It is now a very rare occurrence indeed for an Arsenal match to not be broadcast somehow. And even then there are internet streams.

Of course, the greatest disappointment of the decade has to be the 2006 Champions League Final. Champions League football in the mid-90s was my introduction to the club game. Ever since I started following the club, I dreamed of seeing them win the Champions League. I have to say that I truly believed it was our destiny, our fate to win that Final. The amazing run in the knockout rounds defeating Madrid, Juventus, and Villareal… it was like watching a script being written. Campbell’s goal after going down to ten men only reaffirmed that feeling. I don’t believe I have ever felt so empty after a match as I did after that Final. Not getting there is disappointing but getting there and losing is devastating.

Perhaps slightly more devastating was the move to the Emirates. I was never in the kind of financial shape that would have allowed me to hop the pond to catch a match, like many American Gooners, and so I ended up missing out on a trip to Highbury. The ground mesmerized me from the first time I saw it on television. The row houses between the North and East stands, the pitch, the closeness of the stands to the pitch… all of it gave Highbury some kind of mystical and mythic aura, even through a television set thousands of miles away. I have, in fact, had dozens of dreams of going to a match at Highbury, and, without exaggeration, not getting there before the move is one of the biggest regrets of my life.

The bright side after the Champions League Final disappointment and the closing of Highbury was that we began to see a new side coming together along with the emergence of Cesc Fabregas. In 2007-08, I had a similar kind of feeling about us winning the league title. The victory at Milan was incredible and the subsequent loss at Anfield, despite Theo’s amazing run was even more incredible.

Flamini and Hleb’s departures put a speed bump in the way of the development of the team but, following a necessary year of re-tooling last season, we seem to be back on track towards becoming a side that can dominate the PL and Europe for years. I truly believe that. All that needs to be done is to keep the team together with very few, but critical, additions, with Arshavin and Vermaelen being the examples.

Well, enough ranting, by me. It was a decade to which we should all be thankful to have beared witness. We did things that no one thought any club could do and played football that no other club could play. And at the end of it, despite the lack of trophies, we have gotten to watch an unbelievably entertaining side, second only to Barcelona, be created from scratch right before our eyes.


NOW It’s A Merry Christmas!!!

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Arsenal made a statement on Sunday afternoon. This club just will not fade away or go crawl under a rock like many expected after the disappointing home defeat to Chelsea. They refused to believe that the 2009-10 Premier League season had become a two-horse race, if it already wasn’t before. Despite losing their best striker, and with their best midfielder just barely making the bench, Arsenal came into a crucial league fixture against a team with whom they were level on points but ahead of in third place on goal differential. This was the mindset going into Arsenal’s sort-of Boxing Day match.

Aston Villa was at pretty much full strength, hadn’t conceded a goal in five matches, hadn’t lost a match since the beginning of November, and had already beaten Chelsea, Liverpool, and United, the latter two away. That run had drawn them level on points with an Arsenal side that had won 3 of 4 since the Chelsea match. Yet it had been almost 10 years since Arsenal last lost their Boxing Day/post-Christmas fixture, while Villa has historically struggled after the holiday. And did I mention that Arsenal have never beaten Aston Villa at the Emirates?

On paper, it looked like just the kind of match where Arsenal could be found wanting. Some accounts have characterized the first half as less-than-entertaining, but I thought the play was quick and open and both teams created chances. Eduardo continues to make nice touches inside and around the box, but his finishing is yet to catch up with him. If he wasn’t getting into scoring positions, I would be more worried. He is suffering from a severe lack of confidence that can only be reversed by scoring goals, which means playing time. Diaby, Denilson, and Song did a great job in midfield of shutting down Villa’s attack, which only threatened for a few minutes in the first half when they launched balls into the box.

Quotes from Wenger and some analyses suggest that Arsenal were in the ascendancy when Fabregas came on, but having re-watched the second half, the midfield was struggling in the first 10-15 minutes after the break. Attacks were breaking down in the middle third due to misplaced passes, a few coming from Denilson. He was finally taken off for Fabregas. That is the moment the match changed.

Arsenal immediately looked more threatening and were able to get the ball deep into the attacking third. Fabregas’s free-kick was a stunner; it takes something special to not even give Brad Friedel a chance. After that, Arsenal kept on pushing. As Villa were forced to chase the match, a horrible pass by Milner followed by a perfect, long diagonal ball from Traore, whom had quite probably his best match from a defensive perspective. His pass released Walcott, who found Fabregas for a great finish and the second goal.

Was it worth it? If Fabregas now misses two to three weeks, was bringing him on worth the three points. Arsene believes so, and so do I. You have to win the match you are playing, not matches two weeks from now. Also, the match with Villa was a six-pointer. This match HAD to be won. And it was, by Arsenal’s genuine match-winner, Cesc Fabregas. Goals 10 and 11 for the season sunk Villa and put Arsenal into second place, if only for a few hours. Superlatives describing Cesc are flooding the web as we speak, and I don’t need to add to them. Just consider that he is on pace to end the season with 20 goals and 22 assists, something which hasn’t been done since Henry in 2003-04.

This Arsenal team is not going to willingly go away and leave the title race to United and Chelsea. It’s also not going to prove 99% of football pundits right. Instead, it will fight on. It will need to. With Cesc facing a brief lay-off, Denilson aggravating his back injury, and Song about to leave for Africa after two more matches, we will conceivably be playing an entire second-string midfield for much of January. For me, that means Diaby, Ramsey and possibly moving Nasri back into midfield. However Arsene works it, the entire squad will be needed to get through the next couple of weeks.

But the foundation has been built this December. Looking at the big picture, one has to wonder whether Arsenal can really win the league title with van Persie out for the rest of the season. But football works on a game-by-game basis and, like Arsene, I believe the hunger is there. I also believe that the team spirit is there. These were the two intangibles which were missing last season. Chelsea will soon be facing the loss of Drogba and others for the ANC and United won’t be back at full-strength any time soon. If Arsenal win their game-in-hand on January 6th, home to Bolton, we will pull within one point of the leaders. That was inconceivable only 3 weeks ago.

Also, enjoy this cameraphone video of Cesc’s free-kick: