Balaji Ramamurthy

          Editor – Football, The CouchExpert

          August 25, 2011

There are two reasons why I have refrained from writing about Arsenal’s season until now. To a smaller extent, work and to a larger extent, I did not wish to write Arsenal’s premature obituary week after week until things settled down a little bit on the pitch. And as I write now, Arsenal have marched into the UEFA Champions League thanks to a 3-1 aggregate win over Udinese in the qualifiers. More on that later.

Newcastle 0 : Arsenal 0

Arsenal entered St. James’ Park knowing that they had seen the last of Cesc Fabregas. Samir Nasri was more of a 50-50. But the focus was on having to start the big season despite the monumental losses in midfield. The playing XI though was good enough to beat Newcastle. Arsenal really should have made the 3 points at Newcastle. Newcastle barely threatened and were as dull as a Nicholas Cage movie when it came to attacking. And this is why I chose to highlight the losses in Arsenal’s midfield to begin the game analysis with. Arsenal were almost on the same page as Newcastle. Chances were far and few. Robin Van Persie was not sharp enough and it was pretty much an out of sync Arsenal performance. Aimless dribbles, sloppy passes and horrendous decision making in the final thirds of the pitch. The less said about their final ball delivery the better. Gervinho looked lively enough but more often than not his indecision in the final delivery took away from us any chance of scoring. And when you have the creative links missing in your team (read Fabregas and Nasri), you really need to make the most of the few chances that you get. Arsenal’s players would do better to just shoot at the keeper rather than having the ball in the opposition penalty area and thinking there. This is not Chess. You need to be fast, accurate and intelligent in the final third if you are to score plenty.

Hit me baby one more time!

The game was so boring that the only moment it came alive was during the Joey Barton-Gervinho fracas. Gervinho went down under minimal contact in Newcastle’s penalty area and the referee waved play on. And then came Joey Barton who manhandled Gervinho and got a slap in return for his favors from the Ivorian. Notwithstanding professional behavior, which was obviously missing from Barton in the first place, I personally wished that Gervinho should have slapped him harder. It was a melee that ensued and it was a no brainer that we were going to see red. Regrettably it was a shocker of a decision from the referee who gave Gervinho the red and let off Barton with a yellow. I am not buying the argument that the referee had his back turned when Barton was manhandling Gervinho and just saw what Gervinho had done in what followed. The linesman had a clear view of the incident and should have rightfully informed the referee of what had instigated Gervinho. Why I say I wished the slap was harder is because of this. It was more like a flick on the side of his head and the so called “manly Englishman” in Joey Barton went down to the floor shrieking like a road dog that just got run over by a truck. I am not at all arguing for Gervinho to have been let off but Barton should have seen red too. Arsenal held on with 10 men and it ended 0-0. Not good. Not bad either. For the second season in a row a new signing was sent off on his debut in the first game of the season. Last season it was Laurent Koscielny, this time Gervinho. To make things harder for Arsene Wenger, Alex Song was handed a three match ban in a post match review for his stamp on Joey Barton. Quite stupid of Song given how threadbare the Arsenal midfield is already.

Arsenal 1 : Udinese 0

Arsenal hosted the Italian high fliers Udinese at the Emirates in the first leg of the Champions League qualifiers. Arsenal needed to score, prevent Udinese from scoring and get a good result to carry over to the second leg at any cost. Champions League qualification is priceless when you really are intelligent enough to look above the £25m revenue that it guarantees you. More than the money its about playing in Europe’s elite competition and the prestige that comes along with it. For a club of Arsenal’s stature, playing in Europe is a must especially if they are to attract big names in the transfer market.

One-Nil to the Arsenal

As far as the game itself was concerned, Arsenal started very well and Theo Walcott put them ahead very early within 5 minutes. But that is where the scoring ended. Arsenal saw off the half comfortably and ideally would have loved another goal plus a clean sheet to carry to Italy, just to be safe. But there were no more potent Arsenal attacks in the second half. The final delivery was lacking again and there was wave after wave of Udinese attacks and counter attacks. Everything was centered around the seasoned Italian marksman Antonio Di Natale and as Arsenal and we would find out, the man would find his mark in the second leg. It was a nervous second half and Arsenal luckily scraped through 1-0. Not enough but okay.

Arsenal 0 : Liverpool 2

Arsenal then hosted Liverpool in their first domestic home game of the season. Cesc Fabregas gone, Gervinho suspended, Song suspended, Wilshere injured, Gibbs injured. And as if that was not enough already, first choice defender Laurent Koscielny had to be substituted with the reserve team defender Ignasi Miquel before the clock had even completed 15 minutes, thanks to a back injury. Any casual viewer would have been gladly forgiven for having mistaken this game for a Carling Cup game. Such was the absolute threadbare nature of the playing XI and the bench for Arsenal. It was always going to be a tough game against the resurgent Liverpool who had invested handsomely in strengthening their squad over the summer. Emmanuel Frimpong got his game and would be remembered for both the right and the wrong reasons. Arsenal did quite well in the first half and even for most parts of the second half. They were stroking the ball pretty effortlessly much to the dismay of Kenny Dalglish and the average Liverpool supporter. Liverpool were content to defend and earn a point from the game and that is a result a Gooner would have taken as well. Frimpong was immense in the midfield and worked his heart out. But inexperience would show soon and a rash tackle on Lucas Leiva would get him sent off as a result of a second yellow.

Emmanuel Frimpong sees red

The young lad was visibly upset at having potentially cost his team the game but the Emirates faithful saw it otherwise. And I have to admit myself that its been a long time since I have seen an Arsenal player wear his heart up his sleeve and love the cannon on the chest so much. Frimpong played his heart out and though it was a silly tackle that got him sent off for a second booking, the Emirates crowd gave him a standing ovation as he left the pitch dejected. No less than what he deserved for a brilliant performance full of heart. Dalglish would smell blood and sent on Luis Suarez for the kill against the 10 man Arsenal. It was havoc. Sagna was playing left back throughout the game and we had the extremely inexperienced Miquel and Jenkinson defending for us. And it happened eventually. An unfortunate own goal resulted from a clearance hitting Aaron Ramsey and looping into the net. And Luis Suarez finished the game in the final minutes. 2-0 to Liverpool away from home and a reeling Arsenal. The effort put in by the Arsenal lads was never ever in question. It was stupendous. But quite simply many of those raw youngsters should not have been playing such a high pressure game in the first place. The squad is vapor thin that these talented but inexperienced youngsters have been unfortunately thrown into the lion’s den right-away. The boos that emanated at the final whistle were never aimed at the youngsters. They were aimed at Arsene Wenger and more precisely the boardroom staff for having failed miserably in strengthening the squad over the summer despite the worries over Cesc and Nasri. Nasri did play in the game but that was more of a necessity than a choice really.

Udinese 1 : Arsenal 2 (agg 1-3)

Arsenal really needed to shake off the horrendous start to their league season and find their focus for this much awaited and potentially do or die clash against Udinese in the away leg of the Champions League qualifiers. A bad result here could have quite really made Arsene Wenger’s position as manager of the club untenable and left Arsenal’s stature as a top club in tatters. The good news was that Robin Van Persie returned from his European suspension and Song and Gervinho were playing with their domestic bans invalid in Europe. Thank God. But the injuries were still there. On the missing list were Koscielny, Wilshere and Gibbs. We started off very well but the occasional warning signs were there and looming large in the form of Antonio Di Natale. Di Natale had a goal ruled out (rightly so) for offside and minutes later smashed a great effort on to the post. The defensive pairing of Vermaelen and Djourou did not look sure or comfortable. It was more like Vermaelen was not sure about Djourou and that in turn affected his concentration. Djourou was absolutely shaky at best. Time after time he showed his total lack of awareness as he let in Di Natale into dangerous positions at the rate of about a dozen times a second. Djourou seriously needs someone like Martin Keown to sit down and teach him the basics on positioning and awareness. And then it happened. Wojciech Szczesny as good as he had been thus far could not keep a peach of a looping header from Di Natale out after the Italian striker had yet again beat Djourou to a dangerous position in the Arsenal box. Udinese were now level on aggregate and looked to be in the ascendancy. But thankfully half time arrived soon. Arsenal got the much needed break quickly enough to reorganize and come back strong. And it was not mission impossible either. All they needed to do was to score once and Udinese would have to score two more times to qualify thanks to Arsenal’s away goal.

The two saviors

And thankfully it came early. Gervinho’s nice and elegant run from the left flank resulted in a great final ball from him to Robin Van Persie. And the captain who was waiting in the center gleefully smashed it into the net with his first touch. Arsenal had leveled the game, gone ahead 2-1 overall and with this away goal, Udinese now needed two more to win. And just when I thought Arsenal were comfortably through, a tricky Udinese ball into the box caught Thomas Vermaelen on his arm and Udinese were awarded a penalty. Up stepped Antonio Di Natale against Wojciech Szczesny. It was a cracking spot kick. And it was an even more cracking save that Szczesny produced under immense pressure. Szczesny had just made a £25m save if you could put a value to it. But for most practical purposes, it was a priceless save, a great save under pressure. So much so that I have started referring to him as Wojciech “The Legend” Szczesny. I shudder at the very thought of Almunia keeping goal for a team as defensively frail as this one right now. So thank heavens Szczesny has stepped up his game so well and become a confident first choice keeper for Arsenal. Arsenal scored again when Sagna released Theo Walcott free and the Englishman coolly slotted the ball into the net after a superb run to beat the last defender. With the 2 goals in the 2 games Walcott more than made up for missing a sitter earlier in this game that could also have potentially costed Arsenal the tie. 2-1 to Arsenal and game over.

With this win, Arsenal have made it to the Champions League for the 14th season in a row. And that is quite an achievement when you realize that the only two teams who are on a longer run are Manchester United and Real Madrid. And well you know how much money both those sides have thrown around in the market season after season. In that aspect I do not think there is another manager on this planet who can achieve this feat with the tight budget and transfer policies that Arsene Wenger has to operate under. Now what is to be done is to build on and strengthen. For now, Arsenal are still a big club getting to play among the best in Europe. And that is what this qualification does. It maintains Arsenal’s ambitions and prestige and helps attract good players in the transfer market. Admittedly there is only a week left for the transfer window to shut, but at least there is time left to buy, now that a major hurdle to maintain a big name in Europe has been achieved. I ideally hope that we sign that genuine creative replacement for Cesc, a proper fit left back, a center half and a striker who can take up scoring responsibilities when Van Persie does not fire. Those are 4 signings that we need really badly, although we could do with a Cesc replacement and a couple of defenders for now and see that striker in January when the winter window opens.

This Sunday Arsenal play Manchester United. If Arsenal are even to stand a fighting chance, they need to build the squad and build before kickoff. It may happen or it may not happen. It will be a tough game and I expect United to see off Arsenal going by the current form and the two squads. United have enough depth in experience, youth as well as talent whereas Arsenal already lacking in squad depth have been resorting to reserve players playing in the starting XI. And with Song and Gervinho suspended and all the other injuries persisting and no new signings made, I really have no idea how we are going to be able to come away with anything other than a defeat in the hands of United. Both defensively and from the point of view of creativity from the midfield, we look very very frail and paper thin. The start to this season has been domestically very shaky but Arsenal have qualified for Europe, which is immense. Another defeat is expected against United this Sunday on the domestic front but more important than that is to sign those players needed to get the squad decently up and running quickly and come back strong in this season as it progresses. Do it Arsene. Please do it soon.

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