Liverpool visit the Emirates today for what is already being described as the fight for a top-four finish. ESPN, for example, have quite ridiculously dubbed this “the battle for fourth place.” If it weren’t for their unimpeachable track-record with this kind of prognostication, I might assume there were 18 other teams and 36 other games that could have a say in the final table. But it’s pointless to argue with the media once they’ve set their agenda.
In reality, both teams could finish in or out of the top-four. That’s the point of playing the entire season. However, there may be a shred of truth behind the media hype. Right now there are six clubs in English football with legitimate designs on finishing in the top-four. Naturally, two of those sides will will be excluded. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that we could be one of those teams if things don’t go according to plan. And if we do fail to beat Liverpool, regardless of the injuries and suspensions, the media frenzy surrounding our alleged crisis will become unbearable. So we can save ourselves a lot of unnecessary annoyance by winning the match today. Not to mention that Liverpool are mostly insufferable and need to be put in their place.
The manager held his press conference on Friday and delivered the team news. Tomas Rosicky will be rested for today’s match with a minor injury. It wouldn’t surprise me if Arsene made that decision with one eye on Wednesday’s match in Italy. Defensively, we’re going to be without Gibbs and Traore. Wenger indicated that he would either use Vermaelen, Jenkinson or Sagna to cover left-back. With Djourou available for selection, he might choose the more experienced Vermaelen, but that means breaking up a central-defensive partnership that has looked solid over the first two matches.
Wenger acknowledged that we are a little short in midfield. There are a few other choice adjectives you might use to describe our current situation in midfield, but I’ll leave that to your discretion. As such, the manger announced that Nasri would be in the side and that he wouldn’t hesitate to play him. In a move that won’t surprise anyone, Wenger told the press that Nasri has been completely committed in practice and would give his all for the club if called upon.
If that is the case, then I have to believe Nasri will start. Like it or not, he’s the best choice to partner Ramsey and Frimpong. If Nasri doesn’t start, that leaves only Lansbury or Arshavin for the third midfield position. I wouldn’t mind seeing Arshavin moved into midfield, but that would only create a selection headache in attack, where Gervinho will miss the game as part of his three-match ban. Ryo and Chamberlain are both in the side today, but it would be preferable to ease them into the action rather than handing either of them a start. From a purely pragmatic perspective, Nasri is the right choice.
Wenger’s declaration that he could use Nasri today lead to questions about fan reaction. It was interesting to see Arsene’s response. The manger rightly pointed out that the fans will primarily want to see Arsenal deliver a good performance and win the match. But he went on to say that the fans have no reason to reproach Nasri over his expected transfer. Whether you agree with that or not, Arsene went even further with his observations about negative fan sentiment. He suggested that the most extreme beliefs are getting the most media attention but do not reflect the sentiment of most intelligent, sensible fans.
I understand what Wenger is trying to say, and I even agree with him to a point. The craziest, loudest, most outrageous opinions will always attract the most cameras and microphones. The media loves to create crises and tempests in teapots. That’s what sells papers, generates clicks, and boosts ratings. But I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to suggest that antipathy towards Nasri is reserved for merely a crazy but vocal minority. I’d argue that there is a large group of very reasonable fans who don’t particularly enjoy the way Nasri has comported himself this summer and throughout his contract negotiations. I personally do not care for his behavior. And while I can understand a player wanting to double his wages, Nasri did not have to question the club’s ambition along the way.
Wenger clearly believes that fan unrest is a media creation. But those weren’t journalists asking him to spend money at St. James’ park. Those were the loyalists. The away fans. The ones who have always been first to sing “one Arsene Wenger.” The boos at the end of the Emirates Cup may have been unpleasant and probably ill-advised, but it wasn’t coming from an isolated minority of extremists. There’s a growing number of fans that are worried about Wenger’s plan and justifiably so.
Without going further into this issue, I think it’s safe to say that Arsene has misjudged the supporters’ feelings towards Nasri. Hopefully most fans will have the sensibility to support him for 90 minutes if he plays today. We only hurt ourself by booing a player in an Arsenal shirt when we need him to come through for us. But I think the whole experience could be more than a little bittersweet. It should make for some fascinating story-lines. But regardless of the drama surrounding the player, we can’t allow that to overshadow the match and the need for all three points.
Arsene was asked yesterday about comments made by David Dein. Dein apparently gave an interview for the BBC’s “Football Focus,” in which he said that Arsenal risk losing Arsene Wenger if the fans don’t show him more support. Thankfully, Wenger rubbished that suggestion. He said very clearly “you can question my decisions, but you cannot question my loyalty.” I think any reasonable Arsenal supporter would agree with that.
The manager then went on to say, that at some point in the future, we will see what he turned down to stay at Arsenal. I’m sure he’s been approached many times over the years, including by Real Madrid. And in every instance, he has chosen to stay at Arsenal. I don’t want to suggest that makes him a saint. After all, he is very well compensated for his services. But he has never given up on the club. Even though circumstances have conspired to make managing at Arsenal more challenging that at any time during his tenure, he has remained committed. However, I don’t Arsene is being questioned about his loyalty. It’s his decisions that many find confounding.
It’s clear from listening to Arsene yesterday that he believes in the players he has brought in. I think he genuinely feels that he’s added some exceptional talent. That should excite every Arsenal fan because Arsene Wenger usually knows what he’s talking about when it comes to scouting attacking players. But there are undeniable questions about our new players’ experience and Arsene acknowledged that fact when discussing Ryo. Wenger pointed out that he was playing for his college team just last year and that he will need time to adjust.
When asked why he hasn’t added more experienced players, Arsene said it’s because they are not easy to find. He was adamant that it was not an issue of money. And when he was asked which area of the pitch most needed strengthening, he answered that he likely needed to add another midfielder. It may not be what some supporters want to hear, with questions about the defense still going unanswered, but when you look at the squad, he’s undoubtedly correct. There’s simply not enough depth in midfield right now. However, he gave no indication that he was close to signing any particular player.
Based on what the manager had to say yesterday, I’d assume our team will look something like this today:
Arshavin – van Persie – Walcott
Nasri – Ramsey
Jenkinson – Vermaelen – Koscielny – Sagna
Of course it’s possible that Arsene’s talk about Nasri was a smokescreen, but it hardly helps his cause to say that the player is fit, available and dependable, and then not pick him. Especially when you consider the paucity of midfield options available. If Nasri doesn’t start it’s Lansbury or Arshavin. Then it’s Chamakh, Chamberlain or Ryo coming into the side in attack. Looking at those options, it’s clear that Nasri gives us the best choice of winning. That means the fans will just have to cope with it the best way possible.
Liverpool bring their new look side to the Emirates where their recent form has been dire. But they will have hopes of changing that form when they look at the players missing from our lineup and the remarkable inexperience on our bench. Arsene described Liverpool as being “hyperactive” in the transfer market this summer. If you wanted to be argumentative, you could point out that Liverpool managed to find experienced Premier League players for sale. But I’m not sure that we’d want Downing or Henderson or Adam brought into our side, and certainly not at the prices Liverpool paid.
Wenger did make the point that Liverpool’s transfer activity shows how hard it is to stay in the top four. They’ve spent nearly £100 million on players they hope will get them back into an exclusive club where Arsenal have remained every year under Arsene’s management. Hopefully their spending doesn’t earn them admission at our expense. History shows quite clearly that if you spend enough money, eventually it gets results. It’s rare that a top-four transfer expenditure and a top-four wage bill doesn’t result in a top four-finish. And while it would be nice to show Liverpool that we are still superior to them despite all their spending, the only thing that really matters today are the three points on offer.
Arsenal come into the match with reason to believe our defense has improved. But you can expect Liverpool to target Jenkinson if he starts at left-back. And regardless of who’s playing defense, Luis Suarez is the kind of player that can trouble any defender in the world. But he was kept relatively quiet when Liverpool came to Emirates in April, and perhaps he’s still just a little bit jaded from his Copa America exertions. The bigger problem for Arsenal could be the giant pony-tailed freak in the middle of Liverpool’s attack. Carroll scored the winner for Newcastle at the Emirates last season, but was aided by poor play from Squillaci and Fabianski on that day. When he returned with Liverpool in the spring, he failed to create much.
In many ways, the match against Liverpool in April represented everything that was wrong with our run-in. Our attack was ponderous and toothless for almost the entire game. There was little urgency in Arsenal’s play but we were handed a lifeline with a late penalty that should’ve won the game. Then we conspired to throw away two points when Eboue conceded a penalty in what I remember to be the 47th minute of stoppage time. Today we have the chance to put that right.
Liverpool may have spent a lot of money this summer, but that means they have a lot of new players to integrate. They produced an uneven and often disjointed performance against Sunderland last weekend and their weakness defensively was noticeable despite conceding a lone goal. I’m not convinced that they’re going to find their best form this season for a while, and the absence of Stephen Gerrard means they will be relying even more heavily on the new recruits. That should help offset the somewhat patchwork lineup we’ll be forced to start today. However, set-pieces were our well documented achilles heel last season and with Downing and Adam both capable of delivering precision balls for Carroll to attack, we’ll have to be careful about giving away free kicks in dangerous areas.
While everyone’s been quick to criticize our defense, Liverpool will start the less-than-intimidating quartet of Enrique, Agger, Carragher and Flanagan. There’s no question we can create chances to score against that Liverpool’s defense. If anyone in our midfield can pick the passes, van Persie, Walcott and Arshavin should spend plenty of time behind their back four. The only question is whether we can produce the end product that was missing last weekend.
Call me crazy but I fancy us for a win. A big win. Maybe we don’t keep a clean sheet, but I think we’ll see the right combination of commitment and quality to beat a Liverpool side that can’t defend and doesn’t have their players fully integrated. This is RVP’s chance to start his tenure as captain the right way, and he’ll have help from his imposing vice-captain, Thomas Vermaelen. When you add Ramsey’s passion, Jenkinson’s love for Arsenal, and Szczesny’s intensity, there’s now plenty of character in this Arsenal side. That’s an ingredient that may have been missing in season’s past. And while we might still be a short on depth and experience, it’ll be refreshing to see committed player’s wearing the Arsenal shirt today. (Well, most of them anyway.)
Once again it will be fascinating to see how the fans greet the team and whether the atmosphere is festive or tense. I would imagine after the sphincter-clenching affair on Wednesday, everyone will be hoping for a slightly more ebullient mood. But it’s a symbiotic relationship between the players and the fans. Hopefully the former will give the latter plenty of reasons to cheer.
The media have already decided that fourth place will be awarded to the winner of today’s match. I haven’t seen anything from the Premier League confirming that decision. But I can assure you, if we win the match today, it’ll send many in the press scrambling to find reasons why Liverpool will still overhaul us come May. That’s the way it goes for Arsenal fans these days. It’s us against them. Not us against us. So let’s pull together and give them a good beating today!
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!