Fabregas brace leads Gunners to comfortable victory
Today was an important moment for this Arsenal team in many ways. Over the past few seasons and particularly this season, these types of games have given the Gunners problems. Our failure to challenge for the league title this season can be traced back to our disappointing performances in games where we were heavily favored. We simply haven’t had the swagger to brush aside lesser competition like Arsenal teams of the past. Instead, we had something that approached nonchalance or even apathy. At times, it seemed that some Arsenal players didn’t approach these games with the proper pofessionalism. So today’s match was an important indicator of this team’s progress. ‘Boro are a team that we should beat, but the match was played in the shadow of our Champions League semi-final with United. That fact was made all the more noticeable by Sir Alex Ferguson’s attendance at the Emirate. But unlike several matches earlier this season, Arsenal responded today by coasting to victory over ‘Boro and looking by far the better side.
Today’s starting eleven was always going to be interesting. I assumed, like so many supporters, that Wenger would rest his key players entirely. So it was a tremendous surprise to see Nasri, Theo and Cesc all lining up in midfield. What was even more surprising was that Nasri was played as the second holding midfielder alongside Denilson. The boss is making it obvious at this point that he intends to play a five man midfield going forward. He likes the protection of two holding midfielders, although I’m not sure I see the improvement defensively, and he appears to enjoy Cesc in a more advanced role, although he hadn’t flourished in that position until today. Whether I agree or not is irrelevant because I’m merely a blogger, and Arsene is the boss. So it looks like I’m going to have to get on board with the 4-2-3-1. It will, of course, give Arsene trouble when RVP and Ade are both fit for selection. There’s no denying that left wing is not RVP’s preferred position and he’s not going to stick around at the Emirates to back up Adebayor. (Whether he stays or not is another story entirely.)
So the midfield contained Arshavin, Cesc and Theo, with Denilson and Nasri holding. Four very talented offensive players in midfield, and four that we should get used to seeing for next season. Nicklas Bendtner started in the lone striker role and the back four included Eboue, Toue, Silvestre and Gibbs. Almunia, as expected, returned to the starting lineup after his ankle injury. Not our first choice lineup, but a strong one nonetheless. Song was given the day off and Ade and Djourou were second half substitutes. Djourou was probably in line to play some of the match but was called upon at half-time after Silvestre supposedly suffered from back spasms. The boss has him at 50/50 for Wednesday’s game, and as much as I would prefer not to see him on the pitch, it’s probably best to have him available.
A cynical supporter will look at today’s game and see the ways that we weren’t at our best. Aliadier squandered a great chance, one-on-one with the ‘keeper, but he did force Almunia into a brilliant instinctive save with his left leg. ‘Boro were also denied a decent penalty shout when Bendtner inexplicably handled in the penalty area. There were a few moments of insecurity and uneasiness at the back and some of our players might have been a bit extravagant at times. But that viewpoint of the game is just a waste of time. The fact is that Arsenal bossed the game, rarely looked like they got out of first gear, played long stretches of the match on the edge of ‘Boro’s penalty area, and probably could have had two or three more goals if they were really in the mood.
Both Arsenal’s goals today came from our captain, Cesc Fabregas. What a relief to see him getting back on the score sheet. He is a great midfielder whether he scores another goal in his career or not, but when he does put them in the back of the net, it adds another dimension to our game. His first goal was a great finish after a wonderful counter attack. Arshavin got the ball to Bendtner whose clever flick allowed Cesc to send Arshavin free down the right side. Arhsavin held the ball up and slid it across to Cesc for the sliding finish. On the second goal, Eboue played a Cesc-like, inch-perfect pass through the defense and right to the feet of Fabregas, who cooly rounded the keeper and slid the ball inside the near post. A composed finish, although it has to be said that the ‘keeper had no business being so far off his line.
I’m sure Arsene Wenger will take heart from the fact that today was the first time Cesc looked really comfortable playing in a more advanced role. I don’t think it will escape anyone’s observation that Arshavin had a lot to do with that. While Andrei had some embarassing miss-kicks in the second half that contradicted his new reputatin as a clinical finisher, he played a brilliant game and really brought the other players into the attack. His vision and quick thinking perfectly compliment Cesc’s cerebral style of play. It’s a shame that we won’t have him pulling the strings with the captain on Wednesday.
One of the unexpected bright spots today was the play of Emmanuel Eboue. He started at left back to give Sagna more time to recover for Wednesday. While had a few careless moments defending, some of his attacking play was truly inspired. Eboue is the kind of player that can drive you completely mad. There’s just no denying that he has a special quality about him. He has pace and good ball control and seems to find a way to cut through defenses. But in the final third he lacks composure and you’re never convinced that he’s giving you 100% throughout the match. Love him or hate him, Eboue was solid today, and if Arsene Wenger can find a way to get the mental part of his game ironed out, he could be a fantastic backup to Theo on the right side of midfield, or Sagna on the right side of the defense.
As I mentioned, Djourou and Ade came on in the second half. Djourou played the entire 45 minutes and didn’t particularly distinguish himself. But then again, there really wasn’t much for him to do. Adebayor had a lazy performance off the subs bench and he probably could have scored or created a goal or two if he was really in the mood. When comparing Bendtner to Adebayor, there is no denying the superior work-rate you get from Nik. He stays with the game and finds ways to get involved. But there’s no substitute for raw talent and when Adebayor is on the pitch, you can clearly see the extra pace, control and skill in his game. I can see why Bendtner would get frustrated playing behind Adebayor. It’s not like being the apprentice behind Thierry Henry. When Henry was on the pitch he lit-up the entire stadium with his presence and his brilliance. Sometimes when Ade is playing he drives you crazy with his languid strides and occasional vanishing act. As a striker desperate to start every match, you can see why Bendtner might believe he deserves it more.
Overall there was a lot to enjoy from today’s game and maybe a few moments of frustration. With a difference call from the referee it could have been a more tense game, but you couldn’t help watching the game and thinking that Arsenal had another goal in their back pocket if they needed it. The really important thing about today’s game was the comfort and swagger with which the Gunners handled ‘Boro. For one of the few times this season, Arsenal went into a match they were expected to win and made the result look predictable from the start. It was good to see.
I could add some comments from the boss at this point, or some reaction from the players, but I would just be going through the motions. To be honest, my heart isn’t even in the bit I’ve written so far. Let’s just skip the post-match quotes and accept that we all just wanted this game behind us so we could focus on United. That’s the game we care about. Even the manager admitted after the game that “[in the second half] you could see that maybe the Champions League started to surface a little bit.” How can you blame the players for that? It’s the game on everyone’s mind. So with this blog entry finished, I can officially start looking forward to the big game. Now we can start getting excited and nervous in earnest. It’s going to be a long 72 hours until Wednesday evening.