Two blown leads.
Two unsettled players.
Two weeks until the new season.
Perhaps that’s the best way to summarize the weekend that was the 2011 Emirates Cup.
There’s little to be said about either match really. You can analyze preseason games until you’re blue in the face but the fact remains that these fixtures bear little resemblance to the ones we’ll be facing beginning in a fortnight.
We conceded three goals in the tournament. Two came thanks to terrible individual defensive errors and the other was an own goal. But it’s difficult to know how much emphasis to place on the defending when our first choice tandem of Vermaelen and Koscielny looked relatively assured in their brief time working together.
Neither opponent was particularly enterprising and the most disappointing aspect of the weekend’s competition is how little entertainment came from 180 minutes of Arsenal football. Frankly the most exciting part of the entire weekend was the return of Thierry Henry, who proved once again that form is temporary but class is permanent. Sadly, the referee decided it would’ve ruined the competitive nature of the match if Henry played the last 5 minutes for Arsenal. Unfortunately Arsenal didn’t seem equally concerned with the competitive nature of the last 5 minutes.
Arsenal’s attack never really came to life and we were mostly treated to two limp displays devoid of creativity and dynamism. Gervinho continued to impress but he was one of a very small number of Arsenal players deserving of praise. Tomas Rosicky also deserves kudos for his performance in the middle of the park. It was certainly better than Nasri’s the day before.
Having watched these games, one thing that seems clear to me is that this team still doesn’t know exactly how to break down a team that comes to “park the bus.” And that’s an approach we’ll certainly see more of at the Emirates this coming season. Without Cesc the attack takes on a decidedly lateral approach that generally fails to thrill. Had we held on to both leads and lifted the Cup, it wouldn’t have come with much fanfare.
Maybe the most depressing thing that came out of the Emirate Cup experience this weekend was the dismal atmosphere at the ground. I realize there were plenty of kids there and it was a chance for people to see Arsenal who don’t usually get the opportunity. Certainly that can only be construed as a good thing. But there’s an anxiousness at the ground that’s carried over from last season. The fans are sitting back and waiting to be impressed, but also expecting to be disappointed. And when they were disappointed, the boos followed. Personally I don’t consider booing the team to be blasphemy the way some do, but there’s no denying that home fixtures are fast becoming a disadvantage for Arsenal. At some point, the petulance should be put on hold and the fans at the ground must provide some robust support in the hope of helping the team push on.
Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if the team performed as though they were interested in the spectacle. There’s a famous saying in sport: “practice like you play, and play like you practice.” It means that you should take your practice as seriously as a competitive match. Then when you are in a competitive match, your intensity of practice will serve you well. Waltzing through preseason games doesn’t prepare you for the tempo and pressure of an away match in Russia with your Champions League life on the line.
All too often over the past few season, Arsenal have played lesser opposition with the attitude that they should be awarded three points for merely showing up. Most of the time we’ve been punished for that attitude as demonstrated by a mounting number of home defeats to newly promoted sides. What we saw this weekend was some of the complacency that drives all fans crazy. Let’s hope Arsene Wenger has found a way to rectify that before the season starts.
The most important thing that happened to Arsenal over the weekend was the injury to Jack Wilshere. With such crucial fixtures awaiting the club at the start of the new season, we can hardly afford to be without our hardest working, most committed man in midfield. Arsene Wenger has suggested that Jack will be out only a week, and we can merely hope that the manager is more accurate in his assessment of this achilles injury than he was with Thomas Vermaelen’s.
Juan Manuel Mata was not in attendance this weekend although rumors continue to persist that we’re moments from making him our record transfer signing. And there’s no indication that we’re any closer to adding that much needed cover at center-back, with our latest bid for Phil Jagielka rebuffed by Everton.
In his press conference following the Red Bulls match on Sunday, Arsene was asked whether he had tried to sign Christopher Samba. He answered in more general fashion saying, “as you know, we have attempted to strengthen the squad. But at the moment I have no names to give you.”
When you watch the video of this moment, there’s a hint of discouragement in his demeanor. You can certainly interpret the quote as him saying that he will not reveal names. We know that’s his policy. But when you watch the body language, there is an interpretation that suggests he meant something different.
It almost seemed as if he was saying “we have bid for players and failed with our bids. At the moment, we have no players in mind.” I hope that’s not the case, but if you watch him carefully, you can see his tone change. It reminded me a little of how the conviction in his statements about signing a goal-keeper last summer gradually eroded just before the window closed.
It says a lot about the state of the club right now that most of the questions Arsene faced in his press conferences this weekend were about Cesc and Nasri rather than the impressive debut of his new bargain buy, Gervinho, or even the quality of Arsenal’s performances on the pitch. But I thought Arsene revealed something new about the Nasri situation in his press conference following the Boca match. Again, if you listen carefully to what Arsene had to say, I think the answer to the question of Nasri’s future with the club is provided.
Arsene was asked “how concerned are you that Nasri could leave for no money next summer?” He did not dismiss the question. He did not say that he wasn’t worried at all. He was more expressive, saying:
“There again, it’s not ideal for us of course on the financial side, but on the sporting side he’s an important players so we have to deal with the situation one way or the other. But that’s why I said in the next ten days we have to be clear on that front.”
Now put that together with his response when asked if “there’s every chance that Nasri will be here for the coming season?” To that question he replied:
“What is ‘every chance’ for you? If you ask me do I want to keep him I say yes, but he needs to be committed to that as well. I don’t give them ten days. You know the transfer period is until the 31st of August. Ideally we go into big games in two weeks of course and in the next two weeks we have to sort our problems out. But there is no specific deadline of one week or 24 hours. Sometimes it’s very quick on that front, sometimes it’s very slow.”
If you casually read those quotes, you could argue that there’s nothing new there. But I see this a different way. Earlier in the preseason he said he was sure that Nasri would stay and that Arsenal are in a position where they can afford to lose him for nothing next summer should that transpire. Now his position has changed. He admits that losing Nasri for free is not ideal and that they have to deal with the situation “one way or another.” Obviously that means selling him or keeping him. And he further enforces the point by saying we have to be clear on that front.
Now you could ask what it means “to be clear” about the Nasri situation. I think Wenger wants Nasri to sign before the season starts or he intends to sell him. Certainly by the end of this transfer window. He says that he needs “to be clear.” He follows that up by saying he wants to keep Nasri but the player “need to be committed” as well. I don’t think he’s talking about emotional commitment. There’s only one concrete way Nasri can “clarify” his “commitment” and that’s by signing a contract.
Wenger refused to say there was “every chance” that Nasri would be here for the coming season. He makes that possibility contingent on Nasri being committed. It’s unconscionable to think that Wenger would let every player go that he felt wasn’t figuratively committed to Arsenal. He even said in an earlier press conference that would set an unacceptable precedent. So he must be saying that Nasri’s “chance” of being at Arsenal is dependent on his literal “commitment” in the form of signing a contract.
I’ve made quite a mountain out of a molehill but I believe we have enough information here to determine that Nasri will sign for Arsenal during this transfer window or be sold. Whether Mata would be a replacement for Nasri, rather than Cesc, is an interesting question.
When Arsene was asked if he liked Mata, he gave a rather strange answer. He essentially said that if Arsenal lost Cesc and Nasri, he would have to buy someone. So Mata could be the replacement for both Cesc AND Nasri with the other replacement coming from inside the club. It would also explain Wenger’s determination to keep Ryo Miyachi with Arsenal this term despite a surfeit of wingers already at the club.
As it stands right now, with Barcelona still unwilling to pay what Cesc is worth, and Samir Nasri seemingly intent on getting his big money move, you could say that the Frenchmen is the more likely to leave the club imminently. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the one we can do without.
If this weekend was any indication of Nasri’s ability to play the “Cesc role,” we should all hope that we don’t see him there this season. It’s not a position that suits his skill set, and yet he covets that central role. If he does stay with us, Wenger will be under pressure to give him opportunities to play in that position, and I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the team as a whole.
So now we have another week before the final preseason match of the summer. Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere will both hope to be fit in time for the start of the season, although few Gooners would shed a tear if they were to miss England’s friendly with Holland and their leg-breaking clogger Nigel De Jong.
Hopefully the team will turn up with a performance at Benfica that sends us into the regular season with some confidence and much needed momentum. It’s an interesting preseason fixture because it very easily could have been a preview of our Champions League Playoff, but as it turned out both teams will be seeded and avoid one another. Regardless, we need a display in Portugal that leaves the team believing they are ready for one of the toughest August schedules they’ve faced in years.
I have some concern that this is “all just a little bit of history repeating.” After the 2007-2008 season, Arsenal lost a key player on a Bosman and had to deal with the headache of another marquee player flirting with a transfer away from the club. We were coping with injuries to two key players and coming off a campaign that had promised so much but ended badly. That summer was also the last time we failed to win the Emirates Cup. I probably don’t have to remind you that we went on to have one of our worst seasons under Arsene Wenger. We had to buy Andrey Arshavin in the January transfer window in an effort to salvage a top four finish, after failing to seal the deal in the summer. Thanks to Arshavin’s good form upon his arrival, and Villa’s stunning collapse, we ultimately managed to finish fourth that season.
I don’t think I have to point out that there are some frightening similarities between Arsenal’s summer of 2008 and 2011. Hopefully those similarities will end when the season begins.
Happy Monday Gooners…