Watching football is supposed to be fun. But I had little fun watching a resilient, if not aesthetically pleasing, Arsenal side ride its luck on the way to a 1-0 victory over Udinese Tuesday night. It was an always tense, occasionally torturous, but ultimately satisfactory affair. Now all that’s required for us to reach the Champions League group stage is to survive 90 minutes in Italy, knowing that we cannot be eliminated in regular time unless we lose by two goals.
Thanks to injuries, suspensions and departures, Arsene Wenger hardly had any decisions to make with his starting XI. The biggest decision of all was whether he should start Marouane Chamakh at center-forward in place of Robin van Persie. The Moroccan has been in terrible form since January, leaving open the possibility that the manager might pick Walcott or Gervinho to play through the middle instead. He also had the option of selecting Nicklas Bendtner despite his potentially imminent departure. Ultimately, Wenger opted for Chamakh.
The rest of the team was unchanged from the side that faced Newcastle, except for Theo Walcott who replaced Andrey Arshavin. I find it strange that Wenger never deploys the diminutive Russian in midfield. There’s no question that he lacks some of the graft required for that position, but he does play centrally for his national team. I still believe he’s one of the few players in the side that can make the kind of defense-splitting passes we saw so often from Fabregas. But Arsene decided to stay with his midfield from the weekend and Arshavin was left on the bench along with Bendtner, Frimpong, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Djourou and Fabianski.
By this point, I’m sure you’ve either seen the match, watched the highlights or read a match recap. For that reason, I won’t bore you with my account of how the game unfolded. But I can tell you that I spent most of the match trying not to vomit from the stress. You would think that scoring an early goal would ease the tension, but on this night, that was certainly not the case.
I can’t say I enjoyed watching Arsenal Tuesday night. It was more like a visit to the dentist than a night of European football. When we scored the opening goal in the fourth minute, I briefly allowed myself to believe we would cruise to victory. That was not to be the case. But in the end we got the result. If any group of fans should be pleased to see their team grind out a result with less than their best performance, it’s Arsenal fans.
Frankly, when you consider the players who were on the pitch, the limited options on the bench, and the enforced changes midway through the match, I think we should be proud of our win. I can confidently say that we would not have closed out that match last season. When Udinese won a soft free-kick on the edge of our penalty area in the 93rd minute, I was expecting the worst. After all, we’ve been through this before. But this isn’t last season and the ball flew harmlessly into the night sky. So maybe there is reason for optimism at last.
I find it funny that many pundits have come out and criticized the team after the match. I have a feeling that if United or Chelsea ground out a 1-0 win against a Serie A side, while coping with injuries and bans, there would be a decidedly more complimentary analysis of their performance. But such is the state of Arsenal Football Club at the moment. The press sense vulnerability and they’re looking for any opportunity to twist the knife. As supporters, we must maintain perspective and remember that this was a great outcome for the club.
Interestingly enough, I thought the match had many similarities to the Newcastle game. Our attack was characterized by sloppy play in midfield, but good moves along the flanks. We had a variety of nearly-chances that never materialized into actual end product. At one point late in the match, despite plenty of possession and some excellent individual build-up play, we had only one shot on goal. And just like last Saturday, we got confident performances from our two center-backs.
Once again, Gervinho was at the heart of many of our best moves, but was unable to pick the final ball. I can’t tell if his problem is nervousness or a lack of composure, but he tends to panic a little when he finds himself in good positions. At one point he made a great run through the center of the pitch and had the option to shoot or play in a teammate on either wing. Unable to make the decision quickly enough, he simply tapped the ball weakly towards the goal-keeper who claimed it easily. The Ivorian may be struggling with his finishing, but at least he doesn’t give up. He continued to run hard for the entire 90 minutes and was almost rewarded with an assist when he set-up Theo late in the match. Unfortunately, Walcott was denied his brace by a spectacular save from Handanovic.
There’s no question that Udinese had the better of play for long spells in the match. Often I found myself preparing emotionally for the equalizer that I was certain would come. We don’t have the players to control the ball in midfield right now and that’s a problem for the manager to solve. Naturally, Jack Wilshere’s return will help, but I think it would be dishonest to say that’s all we need. When you look at the options we had on the bench, there was precious little experience. We finished the match with a midfield trio that made 50 combined appearances for Arsenal last season, and 42 of them came from Alex Song.
Udinese had their chances to score. But our combination of last-second clearances, saving tackles, and great stops by Szczesny conspired to keep them out. After the match there was plenty of talk about how desperately we need to sign a center-back. While I agree that we need to add depth at that position, there’s simply no denying that our defenders were excellent. Vermaelen seems to be back to the form that made him a fan favorite two seasons ago, while Laurent Koscielny was solid again despite making one loose pass that nearly cost us. Sagna had one awful moment on a counter attack and Gibbs was excellent until being withdrawn at half-time.
I’m not sure how you can come away from watching that match thinking that the center-backs were the problem. Sometimes the biases about certain teams become so entrenched that people stop asking if they even make sense. The press have decided that Arsenal need a center-back, so any match where the opposition has goal-scoring chances only serves to reinforce that opinion. But the fact remains that Vermaelen and Koscielny played well on Tuesday and saved the day on numerous occasions. Even Johan Djourou had the chance to make a brilliant saving tackle during his 8-minute visit to the pitch. I’m not suggesting we don’t need to add depth, but our center-backs have now looked fantastic in consecutive games to start the season and they deserve some credit.
Udinese’s scoring chances were mostly created on the counter attack. When you’re the home side, and you have to press for goals, there’s always going to be the chance that you get hit on the counter. The italians had plenty of pace in the side and an experienced, two-time Serie A scoring champion. Yet some people are acting like we should’ve had the tie killed off by the half-hour mark. This Udinese team might be shorn of some of their best players from last season, but they are still a quality side. It was always unreasonable to expect that we were going to roll over them. Especially when you consider that our side is particularly unsettled at the moment and coping with the loss of players who were just as important to us as the ones who left Udinese.
Despite having limited resources at our disposal, and coping with a fair bit of pressure, I still think Arsenal could’ve closed out the match more emphatically were it not for two key injuries. Gibbs was withdrawn at half-time with a hamstring problem, and his replacement, Johan Djourou, lasted just 9 minutes thanks to the same ailment. As a result of these enforced changes, there was little that could be done to change the game as the second half wore on. Udinese pressed hard for most of the match but faded noticeably in the later stages. Had we been able to bring on the fresh legs of Arshavin and Bendtner, we might have been able to take advantage of their fatigue. But the only change we were able to make was to bring on Emmanuel Frimpong in place of Tomas Rosicky in an effort to protect our clean sheet.
At this point it’s clear that if Arsenal didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all. Losing two defenders in the space of 10 minutes is tough to take. But it also means that we’re in a precarious position for our upcoming matches. Without Gibbs, the manager might be inclined to start Vermaelen at left-back. But without Djourou, that would mean starting Squillaci at center-back and that simply cannot be tolerated. The alternative is to start Traore at left-back, but the fact that he was playing for the reserves this week leads me to believe that Arsene isn’t prepared to trust him with that responsibility yet. Ultimately, we might see Carl Jenkinson line-up at left-back this weekend. He acquitted himself well during his 35 minute cameo and was forced to deal with a fair share of pressure. If it’s down to Jenkinson or Traore for Saturday, I’d be inclined to pick the former.
The player that most needed to be hauled off the pitch for Arsenal was Marouane Chamakh. I don’t want this to sound like I’m picking on him or being unnecessarily critical, but the fact remains that he was dire. Other than offering occasionally decent hold-up play, Chamakh added little to the attack. In his defense, we certainly did not take advantage of his best attributes. The moroccan is excellent in the air, but our crosses were mostly terrible and the same can be said for our corner-kicks. When the ball was played along the ground, he never looked like doing much with it.
I really liked Chamakh when he arrived at Arsenal, and even when his form started to dip, I never believed that he was a spent force. But I have to admit I’m coming around to the idea that he’s not a good fit for this team. When you’re the back-up to Robin van Persie, odds are that you’re going to get a lot of playing time. Right now, I don’t believe Chamakh is good enough to score the goals we’ll need in van Persie’s absence. I’d love to be wrong about him and I’m not suggesting that we run him out of the club. But the manager needs to buy a striker. It’s really that simple.
Maybe the nicest surprise for me was how well Emmanuel Frimpong played when he came on. At that time, Udinese were well on top and looked likely to get the equalizer. Frimpong was brought on to add some mettle to the midfield and to protect our slender lead. It was a clear case of “what we have, we hold.” It wasn’t an auspicious start for the midfielder either. His first contribution to the match was to give away two cheap fouls in rapid succession. But he grew into the game from there, making key tackles, breaking up Udinese attacks, and even helping drive the ball forward on the counter attack.
I’ve been worried about the holding midfield role all summer, but this 20 minute appearance by Frimpong hints that he might be what’s needed to solidify that position. It’s also very reassuring considering that Frimpong will be starting in the holding role against Liverpool on Saturday and United the following weekend.
When the final whistle blew on Tuesday night, it was accompanied by a palpable sense of relief. While I’m sure many Gooners would’ve like a more lopsided scoreline, there’s no denying that it could’ve been a whole lot worse. Ultimately, we won the match and kept a clean sheet. It doesn’t matter how we did it. But that means the onus will be on Udinese to come out and win the match next Wednesday. They can’t sit back and play on the counter attack like they did last night. And if they’re forced to push men forward, then we definitely have the weapons to punish them with our own counter attacking.
Udinese will also have to deal with a significantly more accomplished striker in van Persie. And there’s the chance that we’ll have a more potent midfield if Jack Wilshere returns from injury. Gervinho’s domestic ban means that he will be rested and ready for the return leg along with Alex Song who also misses this weekend’s Liverpool match. If we can get a goal in Italy, it’s hard to see us losing. An away goal for Arsenal would force Udinese to score three times. While I wouldn’t rule that out, I’m confident we can prevent it.
Arsenal will also have the manager back on the touchline next Wednesday. He served out his ban on Tuesday, although not without incident. There was a disagreement with UEFA about whether the manager could communicate with the bench by proxy. UEFA apparently gave one answer before the match, then reversed themselves once the match had started. Wenger was visibly frustrated and refused to give a post-match interview as a result. I think it’s safe to say that the folks at UEFA will not be receiving a Christmas card from the Wenger family after the year we’ve had.
Now we get to return to the endless debate over transfers for another few days. I’m sure the injuries to Gibbs and Djourou will spark another round of stories about Jagielka and Cahill, while Samir Nasri will no doubt be in the news as well. Marouane Chamakh’s poor performance will likely mean that we’re linked to a dozen strikers. While the surprising number of empty seats at the Emirates last night will surely give certain journalists a chance to have a go at the club. And if all that isn’t good enough, we may get the chance to watch Cesc Fabregas play for Barcelona today in the Spanish Super Cup. It never rains, but it pours.
Two matches into the new campaign and still plenty for the manager to sort out. But we got our first win of the season yesterday so try to enjoy it. At the moment there seems to be too many Arsenal fans who are content to be miserable. Life gives you plenty of opportunities for that. No need to make it worse.
Remember, the Quadruple is still on!