Attacked From All Sides

Can you guess which animal is Arsenal in this picture?

It’s gang up on Arsenal season these days. The media have been doing it since the dawn of time, but now the rest of the universe is joining in. Even though we’re just three matches into our season, the barbarians are already at the gates, thanks in large part to our underwhelming summer transfer business. Let’s kick-off the Arsenal bashing with Platini’s band of morons.

Leave it to UEFA to bring wounded gooners together. After investigating Arsene Wenger’s behavior during Tuesday’s match against Udinese, the brilliant minds behind Europe’s most prestigious club competition have determined that the Arsenal manager did violate the terms of his ban. As punishment, they have dished out an additional 2 match suspension which will prevent him from managing the team on Wednesday night.

Arsenal intend to appeal the ban which could delay Wenger’s punishment and allow him to be on the touchline for the second leg of the tie. But it is now being reported that UEFA have failed to get Arsenal the necessary documents to appeal the decision in a timely fashion and Arsene could be forced to serve the suspension anyway. It’s all a bit too predictable from UEFA at this point. Let’s just hope Robin van Persie doesn’t get sent off for shooting again.

But UEFA aren’t the only organization giving Arsenal problems at the moment. Manchester City seem to have won the battle of wills with Arsene Wenger. Despite his initial claims that he wouldn’t hesitate to use Samir Nasri on Wednesday, it now appears that the manager has had to change his position. It’s unclear whether the player himself refused to participate, or whether Arsenal simply yielded to Mancini’s demands, but it’s being reported that Nasri will not travel with the team to Udine ahead of the crunch fixture. We should know soon enough if that’s indeed the case.

While that certainly suggests Nasri’s transfer will go through imminently, it also creates a selection problem for Wednesday night. Arsenal should be well equipped to score goals with Gervinho, van Persie and Walcott all likely to start. But the midfield is the real source of concern for the team right now. Nasri’s presence would’ve added much needed experience and prevented the manager from having to make some potentially unpalatable choices.

With Aaron Ramsey in poor form and Tomas Rosicky playing only marginally better and carrying a slight knock, Wenger would probably have preferred to play only one of the two. But now he may have to use both players in midfield, especially if Alex Song is forced to deputize at center-back due to injuries. Either way, Nasri’s absence means there’s less depth in the side for a match where the team simply must get a result. Instead of playing Nasri with Ramsey, and having Rosicky as a substitute, now we’re likely to see Henri Lansbury on the bench. He and Ryo Miyachi were both recently added to the Champions League squad list for this fixture. Quality aside, that’s a big difference in experience.

Arsene Wenger will give his pre-match press conference today and that should give us more insight into how the manager might set-up the team. A lot will obviously depend on the injury news and we’ll just have to hope that Johan Djourou is fit enough to start. I’m sure Wenger will also be forced to answer more questions about Nasri and possible new signings as well.

Meanwhile, Udinese’s chief hit-man has decided to warm up for the second leg by taking shots at Arsenal off the pitch. In case you were worried there wouldn’t be enough drama surrounding Wednesday’s match, Antonio Di Natale raised the stakes with his comments about the current state of Arsenal Football Club. He had this to say about his Champions League opponents,

“We studied Arsenal’s defeat by Liverpool and they have problems in every area. They are playing with doubts spread throughout the side. Any club in a crisis means you are facing a dangerous team but I believe it will be Udinese who will be going through.”

Strong words from the Italian striker. But I have to wonder why Udinese lost and failed to score in the first leg if Arsenal are such a weak side. Does that mean Udinese are an even weaker side? I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow. Di Natale should remember that his team won’t be facing the lumbering, out-of-form Chamakh in the second leg. They’ll be forced to deal with the much more dynamic and clinical van Persie. It’ll also be incumbent upon the home side to take the game to Arsenal. Then we’ll see how well they cope with our counter-attack.

Regardless of the strategies and personnel, Di Natale’s words sting. However, it’s the kind of quote that a manager should love to see. If I were Arsene Wenger, I’d use the comments as a motivational tool for my squad. It’s a chance to change the mentality from pressurized favorites, to battling underdogs. Maybe that’s just the change in psychology the team needs to play without the dreaded “handbrake.”

Back in the Premier League, Manchester United fired a little warning shot of their own by destroying Sp*rs at Old Trafford yesterday. The upside is that it left Sp*rs bottom of the table. Even when we’re reportedly in “crisis,” Sp*rs still find themselves in our shadow. The downside is that United looked irresistible at times. Their new players look well integrated into the team and United didn’t seem to miss their injured starters at all. It’s amazing how a team can gel when you get your transfer business done early in the summer and spend the rest of the time focusing on preparation for the new season. Based on what I saw yesterday, if we arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday with a team that looks anything like the one we put on the pitch against Liverpool, the scoreline could be most unflattering indeed.

Sometimes you get kicked in the gut by something that doesn’t happen. That’ll be the case when Juan Mata is finally announced as a Chelsea player. It’s definitely a case of the one that got away. I’m usually skeptical of media rumors surrounding our transfer business, but it certainly seems there was some fire to go with this smoke. Mata himself has said that Arsenal came with an offer but that the Blues offer was superior.

I’m not suggesting Arsenal are to blame here. Chelsea’s involvement may have proved too much for us to overcome. But there’s no question that Mata’s skill-set fit our needs in midfield at the moment. He’s a player that most fans seemed genuinely excited about and his arrival would’ve helped ease some of the anxiety about the state of our squad. Seeing him play for one of our rivals will only pour salt in an already open wound.

But the best way to really pour salt in our wounds, is to have a former Arsenal great totally undermine the morale at the club. That’s what Ian Wright has contrived to do. Today he’s quoted as saying,

“Any top player would have to think twice about signing for Arsenal right now … Arsenal now in danger of going out of the CL and finishing sixth, seventh or eighth in the Premier League.”

Whether you agree with Wright or not, there’s no question that these kinds of comments are counter productive. It makes the club look bad and shows a total lack of respect for the players currently playing for Arsenal. He’s piling on to serve his own agenda and I find it rather embarrassing for him. I realize he’s free to say whatever is on his mind, but in my opinion, he should be a little more discreet. If he wants Arsenal to recover from this wobble, I don’t see how it helps to have a club legend making such damning statements. Having said that, I really hope he’s wrong.

Let’s cross our fingers for some good news on the injury front today, and worry about signing all our new superstars after we batter Udinese tomorrow. At this point, the universe owes us a favor or two.

Have a good one gooners.

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Italy Beckons and Mancini Threatens

We want our ball in that bowl!

Saturday’s disappointment is still fresh in the memory, but there’s no time for the players to dwell. Arsene will have to lift spirits in the camp ahead of the squad’s trip to Italy on Wednesday. It hasn’t been a good start to the domestic campaign, and signs are worrying. But there’s still 36 games left to right the ship. Conversely, we only have 90 minutes to ensure our Champions League participation. It’s a potentially season-defining moment and one that can serve to stem the tide, or open the floodgates of criticism.

We head to italy with a one goal advantage which means the onus is on the home side to press for goals. That could play into our hands. Robin van Persie will return to the lineup as will Gervinho who served the first of a three match ban in the premier league on Saturday. With the Ivorian on one flank and Walcott on the other, we should be able to turn defense into attack in the blink of an eye. And with the flying dutchman as the focal point, I have confidence in our finishing.

Where the manager will have to make his most difficult decisions is in midfield. Ramsey’s form has been poor. He was mostly anonymous on Saturday with the exception of scoring Liverpool’s opener. Rosicky was rested at the weekend, presumably with one eye on the midweek fixture. Both should be available on Wednesday, but neither will inspire much confidence. Rosicky has arguably looked the better of the two so far, but Ramsey provided the assist for the only goal we’ve scored this season.

Regardless of form, Wenger might have no choice but to start both players. There are rumors that Jack could be fit enough to make the team, but I’d be stunned if it was anything more than a place on the bench. Apparently he is back to full training, so it will hinge on how he feels and Arsene’s assessment of his progress.

Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong will both be available for the match, although neither will feature at Old Trafford at the weekend. I think they give Arsenal an interesting alternative to starting Ramsey and Rosicky. Frimpong’s impressive cameo in the first leg of the playoff, combined with his strong showing against Liverpool, could be enough to convince Arsene to start him alongside Song and either Ramsey, Rosicky or Wilshere.

Frimpong showed he can drive the ball forward and we already know that Alex Song likes to join the attack every chance he gets. Playing both together likely wouldn’t blunt our attack any more than using an out-of-form Ramsey, and it could give us the solidity required to protect a defense that will be a little makeshift due to injuries.

However, if Johan Djouorou can’t play on Wednesday, then I’d expect to see Song moved to center-back rather than risking Miquel. In that case, it’s back to Rosicky, Ramsey and Frimpong in midfield. Not ideal, but as we’ve discussed at length already, the situation with the squad is far from ideal at the moment.

On a collision course over Nasri?

Arsene does have one other solution to his midfield woes. He can hand Samir Nasri another start as he did against Liverpool. Nasri wasn’t fantastic on Saturday, but there’s no question that his experience and quality would be welcome in such a crunch fixture. Wenger has already stated that he would consider starting the want-away frenchman, but that’s where it gets interesting.

Roberto Mancini has come out and warned that if Arsenal use Nasri on Wednesday, then Manchester City would likely abandon their pursuit of him. His frustration over this transfer saga was evident, with Mancini saying,

“If he plays in the Champions League [for Arsenal] it is a big problem. I don’t know [if we would still sign him]. I’m sure we can close the deal. But it’s a problem because we have followed Nasri for 40 days and it’s important we take him. Also, for Nasri, I think it will be important [for him] to play in all the Champions League.”

It hardly makes sense for Manchester City to pay big money for a player that can’t help them in Europe, and the player would be less likely to want the move under those circumstances. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that if Wenger uses him on Wednesday, the deal is off. That’s an outcome the club would likely deem unacceptable. But it’s worth remembering that qualification for the group stages is worth more than what’s being offered for Nasri. It should be an interesting test of wills to see what the manager decides to do.

And speaking of a test of wills, there’s an fascinating article on the internet that has been making the rounds, suggesting that Arsene and the Board are at loggerheads. It’s from a site called The Football Network written by an author only identified as “Eduardo.” There’s no way to confirm the veracity of the story, so it may be best to ignore it altogether, but you can read it here if you like. It suggests a very tense conflict between Arsene and the Board over the issue of wages. The article seems to exonerate Wenger from blame over our recent transfer business, while painting the Board in a most unflattering light.

Whether the information is credible or not, there is an important point to be gleaned. It doesn’t matter if we buy £40 million superstars or £5 million bargains. If we don’t align our wage structure closer to our rivals, then it’s irrelevant who comes to the club, because they won’t stay long. I expect this to continue to be a problem for Arsenal unless it’s corrected.

Finally, there’s transfer speculation aplenty today. Every monday since July has been dubbed a “big week for Arsenal’s transfer business.” But with the exception of departures, they’ve all failed to live up to the hype. I’m not sure this week will be any different. Although with names like M’Villa, Jagielka, and Eden Hazard being thrown around, it’s easy to get sucked in. Spare yourself the disappointment and ignore the rumors until you see these players on Arsenal.com. (And I don’t mean that wretched “transfer linked” page.)

United play Sp*rs today. It’s been so nice to get through two weekends of football without seeing the LWCs. Like all good things, it had to come to an end. If you believe we’re challenging for a title this season, then you’ll probably be reluctantly rooting for Sp*rs. If you think we’re going to struggle for fourth place then you’ll swallow your pride and root for United. I recommend you do what I always do in these situations; root for a 22-man brawl and points deductions. Or Godzilla. Either will do.

Getting nervous for Wednesday anyone?

 

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Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool: Men Against Boys…Literally

A loss. Two goals conceded. No goals scored. Another sending-off. Another injury to a defender. Not exactly halcyon days for Arsenal at the moment. If you didn’t watch the match, you would naturally assume that Arsenal lost from a combination of bad defending and inexperience. That’s hardly the case at all. If anything, it was the experienced attacking players that let Arsenal down on Saturday. But rather than wallowing, let’s start with the positives to lighten the mood.

Arsene Wenger has been under pressure to sign a defender or two all summer long. That’s mostly in response to the way the defense played last season, particularly on set-pieces. But I think we have seen already, in just three matches, how much this team missed Thomas Vermaelen last term. He’s been fantastic so far and was absolutely imperious in this match. Liverpool were supposed to be most threatening on set-pieces and we gave away plenty of them on Saturday. But every time they delivered the ball, it seemed magnetized to Vermaelen’s forehead. His leadership and quality has totally changed the complexion of the way this team defends.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that Szczesny’s attitude has also had a positive impact on the defense. He’s not only the best keeper we’ve had at Arsenal for years, he’s also the most animated. He organizes the defense and commands his area. Having a keeper like Szczesny on the pitch saves us goals and makes the defense look better.

At this point, if Arsene decided not to bring a defender into the side, I’d be comfortable with that decision. Many will disagree, but I think there’s adequate quality. Vermaelen and Koscielny have the makings of an excellent partnership. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see just how long the latter is sidelined with a back injury, but I have complete confidence in their ability to keep us resolute at the back. Meanwhile, Johan Djourou is a quality third-choice center back. The real concern has always been about Sebastien Squillaci, but there are now reports coming from France that Squillaci is not in the manager’s plans for this season. Frankly, his absence is “like a new signing.” Just having him out of the team makes us better defensively.

What we learned today, is that Ignasi Miquel is a capable and composed defender in the making. It’s one thing to know in advance that you’re going to play against Liverpool in the Premier League. It’s another thing entirely to be forced into the action thanks to an injury. But Miquel never looked overwhelmed. It’s too early in his career to expect too much from him, but he held his own throughout the match. He will take some of the blame for the opening Liverpool goal, but that seemed more a freak accident then an error by the spaniard. And that’s without mentioning that the initial pass should’ve been ruled offside. Overall I was impressed by Miquel and if he will serve as our fourth-choice center-back for the rest of this season, I don’t think it that’s cause for panic.

Miquel wasn’t the only youngster that impressed either. Carl Jenkinson hardly put a foot wrong throughout the match and even delivered a few good-looking crosses that no one decided to attack. It was an impressive performance from a young man who’s last starting appearance was in League One.

The man of the match, in many ways, was Emmanuel Frimpong. At times he was our best player on the pitch aside from Vermaelen. Although he does give away a few too many fouls, Frimpong seems to have excellent tackling technique to go with his obvious strength. But what surprised me is how well he played with the ball at his feel. It’s obvious that he’s watched Jack Wilshere in training. When he received the ball from defenders he turned quickly and charged up the pitch, turning defense into attack. He also showed a bit of a nasty-streak which is something this Arsenal team could probably use. But that attitude, combined with a bit of inexperience, also cost us today. Unfortunately, his sending-off was an important reason for our defeat. And now we will face United at Old Trafford without the only two holding-midfielders in the first team.

Frimpong was excellent but showed his inexperience with his second yellow card.

It’s clear to me that we’re watching a star in the making with Frimpong. When you think back to Alex Song’s ascension into the starting XI, it was fraught with poor performances. At times, it looked like he would never be good enough for Arsenal. Thankfully, Arsene’s belief in him eventually paid off. But Frimpong already looks a natural playing at Champions League and Premier League level. On Saturday, in 70 minutes, he lead the team in tackles, made four interceptions, never turned the ball over and was never dispossessed. He clearly has all the physical attributes needed and only lacks the experience. I have the feeling he’ll get plenty of it this season.

When looking forward to this match, I was convinced that we had the quality to get goals against Liverpool’s shaky defense. But that proved completely unfounded. At the moment, Arsenal’s attack looks as poor as I can ever remember under Arsene Wenger. We have yet to score in the Premier League and managed just the single goal against Udinese.

Against Liverpool, the problems started in midfield where Aaron Ramsey is struggling to find form. I have to laugh at some fans’ reactions to last season’s win over Manchester United. There were many suggestions that we could afford to sell Cesc because we had Rambo. That’s obviously ridiculous. Ramsey will become an excellent player for us, but he’s far from Cesc’s level at the moment. He has too much responsibility on him right now and his performances bear that out.

On Saturday, Ramsey wasn’t able to get the attacking players the ball in good positions or find space behind the Liverpool defense. Looking at the Opta stats Ramsey made just 54 passes without attempting a through ball. He was dispossessed four times and turned the ball over twice. Ramsey also failed to create his own offense. He didn’t have a single shot in the match. Of course, he did suffer the misfortune of being credited with the own goal. But Ramsey wasn’t the only Arsenal player to disappoint.

The fact that Wenger had to hand a start to Samir Nasri shows just how little depth we have in midfield. Nasri was active at times in the match without really creating scoring chances for his teammates. Despite making some good runs at the Liverpool defense, I think Nasri proved, once again, that he is not cut out for the creative midfield role. Nasri made only 59 passes, just 7 more than Vermaelen, and didn’t play a single through ball. Meanwhile, he was dispossessed 9 times, which is terrible for someone playing in the middle of the pitch.

Theo Walcott and Andrei Arshavin also had shocking performances. Arshavin had a few successful dribbles but completed a poor 64% of his passes. To his credit, he created Arsenal’s one good scoring chance of the match when he pushed his man off the ball in the Liverpool area, cut the ball back for van Persie, and the Dutchman scuffed his shot right at Reina. But at times Arshavin looked like he had the wrong boots on, completely mishitting the ball on several occasions.

And what can you say about Theo Walcott? He was the hero on Tuesday but could’ve sat in the stands on Saturday. He had just 33 touches and made just 15 passes in 80 minutes against Liverpool. That’s almost exactly half of Arshavin’s contribution and the Russian was woeful in his 72 minutes. Theo’s ineffectiveness, combined with Arshavin’s, left van Persie looking an isolated and increasingly frustrated player. I can’t ever remember seeing those three have less impact on a match.

The combination of a sterile midfield and toothless attack meant that Liverpool were rarely troubled defensively. That made it all the more inviting for them to press for a winner when we were reduced to 10 men. Perhaps Liverpool were fortunate to win, but when you have a player of Luis Suarez’s quality on the bench, you always have the ability to change the game. That’s precisely what we’re missing at the moment. It speaks volumes about the lack of depth in the side at the moment that Wenger’s only available option when Frimpong received his red card, was to bring on Henri Lansbury. Like him or not, he’s a player that was contemplating leaving the club because he couldn’t get any playing time. Saturday he was our only midfield substitute.

Despite the wet weather and uninspired play, the home support was better than I expected. There was even a brief rendition of the Nasri song and not as much booing or demand for spending money as I might have anticipated. But you can forgive a little anxiety at the Emirates. Arsenal are in real trouble right now. While injury concerns and suspensions are a contributing factor, the reality is that the team needs reinforcements. Going back to last season, Arsenal have now won just 2 of their last 13 Premier League matches. We clearly weren’t good enough last term, and we’re worse off now.

Wenger might still do some buying, but he’s cost his team by waiting. If we lose to United next weekend, we could be 8 points behind City and United, and 6 points behind Liverpool and Chelsea. Not where you want to be at the end of August. And I won’t even contemplate the ramifications of failing to qualify for the Champions League. Let’s jump off that bridge when we get there.

I do have two responses for fans suggesting that we couldn’t buy players before Champions League qualification was assured. First of all, Ivan Gazidis said exactly the opposite. He said we weren’t holding back resources for any reason. But if you’re suggesting that players won’t come until we’ve qualified, I’d point to the team that just beat us on Saturday. When they sold Torres they signed Carroll and an excellent player in Suarez. This summer they acquired more experienced players regardless of what you think of their quality. Do they have Champions League football to offer? No. But they managed to strengthen their side. As far as I’m concerned, if we are waiting to see what happens in the qualifier before buying, it’s down to greed and greed alone.

Now we have a few days before the trip to Italy. That match could well decide our season. It sounds like hyperbole, but if we fail to qualify for the Champions League, after the summer we’ve had and a poor start domestically, it could take a long time to steady the ship. Conversely, if we manage to get into the group stages, it will give players and fans alike something to celebrate in advance of some additions being made to the squad. … Hopefully.

It was a depressing Saturday for Arsenal. One that we should just put behind us. If you want to be kind, then you can attribute this match to bad luck and injuries. There’s certainly plenty of truth to that. But I think we know those excuses can only last so long. Let’s face it, every club suffers injuries and bad luck. Arsene Wenger said that it’s not all doom and gloom at Arsenal right now, but as the clouds get bigger, the silver linings get harder to see.

Once again, we can be proud of our youngsters. They acquitted themselves well under the most challenging of circumstances. I’m sure there will be plenty more to come from them down the road. As we’ve often heard over the past few years, the future still looks bright for Arsenal. Now…about the present…

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Liverpool Preview: Fourth Place Up For Grabs

In case you hadn't heard, the season has been dramatically shortened

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

Frimpong

Jenkinson – Vermaelen – Koscielny – Sagna

Szczesny

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!

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The Emperor Has No Clothes

He's on a slippery slope.

Last season Arsenal weren’t good enough to win the league. For the first time in a while, there were no excuses to be found. We didn’t suffer the litany of injuries that had blighted previous campaigns. We didn’t have a busy run-in thanks to our relatively early exit from the Champions League. And with just eight games left in the Premier League season, we had the title within our control. Had we won those matches, we would be the reigning champions of England.

Instead, Arsenal finished the season clinging to fourth place. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that we might have finished outside the top four if the league campaign continued for another few weeks. Such was the precipitousness of our fall from contention.

When the season finally ended it was clear that we didn’t have enough quality in the side to maintain a serious title challenge. There were clear insufficiencies within the squad that needed to be addressed. Arsenal had conceded too many goals to win a title, but also failed to find the back of the net with the consistency expected from Arsene Wenger’s side. The manager had work to do this summer and promised that it would be a busy one indeed. Unfortunately, things this summer did not go according to plan.

At this moment right now, Arsenal are a vastly weaker side than last season. We are weaker in attack, midfield and defense. Assuming that Samir Nasri will be sold imminently, we will have lost an important player from each area of the pitch this summer. What’s worse, we have almost entirely failed to replace them.

There was plenty of negative media reaction to our win over Udinese on Tuesday. Many in the press were lamenting our performance as evidence of our clear weaknesses. They’re right and they’re wrong. I’d argue that it was a miracle we won the match and kept a clean sheet under the circumstances. When you consider who we had on the pitch for a Champions League playoff, the players should be damn proud of themselves. But the competition only gets stiffer and they need help.

The state of Arsenal’s squad right now is essentially disgraceful. We play Liverpool at the Emirates tomorrow and hardly have enough first-team players to make up the numbers. It’s a big match, against a side that will have designs on taking our top four position. Ideally, it’s a chance to show them, on our home ground, that they are still some distance behind us. But it’s hard to imagine that happening with the players we have available.

Arsene has already said that Rosicky is doubtful for tomorrow’s match. That means we could see a midfield of Ramsey, Frimpong and Lansbury. They had 8 appearances among them for Arsenal last season, with 7 coming from Ramsey. That’s beyond absurd for a club of Arsenal’s stature. And it gets even more ridiculous when you consider the possible substitutes. Unless Arsene Wenger promotes players from the reserves for this crunch game, Arsenal will play the entire 90 minutes without a bona fide midfielder on the bench.

The manager could arguably move Arshavin into the midfield. It’s a move that makes some sense. But then the squad’s inadequacies in attack become a evident. Wenger would be forced to start Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ryo Miyachi on the wing. I’m not even sure if the latter is available to play for the team yet, but I do know that Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing in League One last season. Miyachi impressed on loan for Feynoord, but this is a massive step up for a player that’s less than a year removed from playing for his school. The only other choice would be to move van Persie out wide and play the out-of-form Chamakh who is coming off a dire performance just three days ago.

This was supposed to be the summer where we finally strengthened the defense properly. But instead we watched our longest serving defender move to Manchester City. Gael Clichy wasn’t the best defender in England, and he made his fair share of major mistakes, but at least he was an experienced left-back. Tomorrow we could be starting Carl Jenkinson at a left-back. I find myself a little worried about relying on a right-back from League One starting at left-back against the likes of Luis Suarez. Gibbs is out, Traore is doubtful and far from good enough, and with Djourou’s injury, Wenger can’t even contemplate moving Vermaelen into the left-back position. That leaves Carl Jenkinson as the only real option that doesn’t involve playing Sebastien Squillaci.

This is what happens when you promote a player with limited experience and a terrible injury record. Wenger took a major gamble promoting Gibbs, and it’s already backfiring. What’s more frustrating is that Liverpool will hand a start to their new left-back Enrique. He was bought for a reasonable sum and hit the ground running thanks to his experience in the Premier League. Enrique is on record saying that he dreams of playing Champions League football. Seems like he’s a player we might have been able to acquire. But the boss had other plans.

In his interview with Arsenal.com before the Udinese match, Wenger emphatically reminded us that he has brought players into the club this summer. He reminded us that Gervinho, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Miyachi and Campbell have all joined the squad this summer. And he’s correct. But only one of those players should even be considered as regular contributor to a side with title ambitions. Some day we may look back and say this was the group of players that paved the way for future successes. And I hope that’s the case. But Wenger also has a responsibility to secure our present success, and that group of players isn’t the answer.

Let’s look at our summer business in the context of players that should be expected to contribute to a premier league title contender this season. We have potentially lost Nasri, Cesc, Clichy, Denilson, Bendtner and Eboue. We’ve added Gervinho. That’s our real summer business. That’s it. Because no matter how exciting the future will be for Miyachi, Jenkinson, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Campbell, it is unfair in the extreme to expect them to play more than a handful of games for Arsenal at this stage in their careers. But as it stands, they won’t just have to play a few games. They may have to carry the team at times.

Could we have signed Juan Mata or Jadson? Perhaps. Enrique? Maybe. Cahill, Jagielka, Samba, Mertesaker? We still might. But we haven’t signed any of them yet and we already find ourselves half-way through a tricky Champions League playoff that’s precariously balanced. We have a match with Liverpool tomorrow and United next weekend at Old Trafford. Even if we make a new signing, it’s hard to see it happening in time to impact either of those matches, and the new player would be ineligible for the Udinese match. How many games should we sacrifice in the name of trying to find a bargain? 2? 3? Our entire Champions League campaign? That’s the cost of waiting for reinforcements to arrive.

The fact is that we don’t have a very good squad right now. We have a good starting XI. When they’re all fit. But how often does that happen for any team? And what should we do when the ACN takes Chamakh, Frimpong, Gervinho and potentially Alex Song away? We’re seeing what will happen right now. Should we be thankful that we can rely on Miyachi and Oxlade-Chamberlain and Craig Eastmond. Will they see us through our eight January fixtures including the visit of Manchester United.

As Arseblog has pointed out, it’s not fair to expect so much from our young players. They’re going to make mistakes. They need an opportunity to learn and develop somewhere the stakes aren’t so high. They don’t need 60,000 fans at the emirates getting on their backs as they try to somehow compete with the seasoned veterans of United in the middle of a long campaign.

And speaking of the fans at the stadium, what should they make of the game on Saturday? They will have paid the highest ticket prices in the world to watch the likes of  Lansbury and Frimpong and Jenkinson and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Is that right? Is that appropriate? I’m not suggesting the emirates faithful should expect half-a-billion pounds worth of talent like the fans at the Eastlands. I’m not suggesting they should be treated to 50 million pound signings like the supporters at Stamford Bridge. But surely they can expect to see something other than teenagers from lower divisions in our first Premier League home game against a top-four rival.

Last season the fans filled the stadium to see Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. They’re gone now. (Yes I realize the assumption involved.) But they’re not replaced. And there’s simply no excuse for this whatsoever. I said in a previous blog that while Wenger might not have wanted to accept that he was losing Cesc and Nasri, he certainly knew it was a possibility. We should’ve had our replacement targets identified weeks in advance. We should’ve had tentative deals in place, and backup deals in place. That way, after Cesc’s departure was announced, the Club could’ve lifted spirits with an immediate arrival. But Cesc has already played for Barca and we don’t look any closer to replacing him.

What the hell is going on at Arsenal? You don’t sell the world’s best creative midfielder and just pat Aaron Ramsey on the back and say “go get ‘em tiger.” You go buy a big-time talent. Wenger himself said you can’t sell Nasri and Cesc in the same summer and still claim to be an ambitious Club. I disagree with that.

I think you can buy replacement players that are so highly-regarded that it proves your ambition. It shows that you’re not resigned to slipping into mediocrity. And it makes other players want to join up. You prove that Arsenal are still a big club by bringing in a player that any team would covet. You go sign Eden Hazard or someone like him and remind the world that we mean business. But sitting around waiting while your season carries on, only adds anxiety to every fan and player at the club.

And don’t tell me for one minute that we have to wait until we know the outcome of our Champions League playoff. Ivan Gazidis certainly doesn’t believe we need to wait until after the qualifier to spend. He said, “We’re certainly not sitting there saying ‘let’s hold back on our resources’ for some reason, why would we?” Good question Ivan.

Wenger bristled at the fans demands to spend money. He said that merely spending money shouldn’t be the goal. He said that’s a panic reaction. Instead he suggested that the goal should be to add quality to the side regardless of the price. I couldn’t agree more. After all, I don’t want a £20 million Stuart Downing. But Wenger is playing semantics with us. The fact is that quality players cost money now. Scouting is more sophisticated and Arsenal aren’t the only ones scouting players in the far corners of the globe. You want top talent that can improve your team now? You have to pay. But Wenger seems unwilling to do it.

The natural response is to point out that the transfer window is still open. And you’re right. Wenger can still make additions to the squad. Frankly, he’d be bordering on sadistic if he didn’t. But my response is that the window has been open for months. The chances have been there. Don’t give me this song and dance about the transfer market not being a “supermarket.” City got their deals done. United got their deals done. Are they too rich to compare to Arsenal? Ok. Liverpool managed to get plenty of deals done. Don’t want to compare with their crazy transfer business? Fair enough. What about Sunderland? They managed to bring in plenty of players. Was that a fluke? And let’s not forget that teams have found it possible to buy players from Arsenal if they’re willing to pay the price.

Tomorrow will be a very interesting match from the transfer standpoint alone. In Liverpool, we face a side that dived into the transfer market early and got the players they targeted. They identified their needs and made the signings they felt were necessary to strengthen the team. I’m not suggesting they made the right buys. But they got what they wanted. We will be the team fielding inexperienced youngsters while our Club hunts for last-minute bargains.

The fact is that Arsenal could’ve made deals for the kind of quality, experienced players required. If that meant resolving the Cesc and Nasri situations sooner then so be it. You might say I’m oversimplifying. But I had a boss once who told me something I’ll never forget. I had just failed to get something done that was my responsibility. I had a very good excuse. But he simply looked at me and said “I don’t pay you to have good excuses. I pay you to get the job done.” And he was right.

It doesn’t matter that signing quality players is hard. Getting the hard job done is why Arsene Wenger is the highest paid manager in the Premier League. Or at least it should be why he’s the highest paid manager. I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s because he can get the minimum required results with the least possible resources. But by telling us that the transfer market isn’t a “supermarket,” Arsene Wenger is essentially saying, “it’s hard finding what we need.” I’m sure it is. But I don’t care. Just get it done.

Wenger has done a masterful job building our team on limited resources. He deserves plenty of credit for what he has achieved at Arsenal. He has proved his brilliance and guile time and again.  As a Wenger loyalist, my tendency is to defend him because of what he’s done in the past. But no one is questioning that now. It’s what’s being done today that’s cause for concern. As time has worn on, Wenger’s love for parsimony seems to have exceeded our need for it. The money is there now. He could buy if he wanted to. Instead he’s choosing to get by on what he has because he prefers to do it that way.

In this case however, he may have pushed his team too close to the brink. We are about to cross a rubicon from which there is no return. If this transfer window closes without several experienced, quality players arriving, then we should prepare ourselves for a very tough season.

This is the hard part for fans. Swallowing your pride, putting aside emotions, and taking a long, hard, objective look at your team. The Arsenal team that we have right now is not good enough to finish in the top four. It’s a weaker side than last season by some distance and that team might not have finished in the top four had the season carried on another two weeks.

When United lose Vidic and Ferdinand they bring in Jones, Smalling and Evans. No Sebastien Squillaci in that group. Chelsea lose Essien? No they bring on Mikel. City seemingly have three star players at just about every position. And what about Liverpool? Tomorrow we will face them without Gerrard. So they’ll rely on Charlie Adam instead. And who do we have filling in the gaps? Teenagers. Players coming up from League One. Promoted members of the reserves. Any way you look at it, that’s not good enough. If we want to stay in the top four, then we have to finish above one of those teams I just mentioned. Which one is it going to be?

Instead of thinking of the really good player’s at Arsenal, why not think of the players backing them up. Here’s a list of the outfield players who wouldn’t be in our first choice starting XI, assuming we sell the players we expect to sell. Chamakh, Arshavin, Miyachi, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby, Rosicky, Frimpong, Eastmond, Lansbury, Djourou, Squillaci, Traore, Jenkinson. That’s it. That’s the cavalry. It’s unrealistic to expect your first choice XI to all be fit for the entire season. It’s even more unrealistic to expect it from our players. So those are the players we’ll need to rely upon at various points this season. And you’ll have to forgive me for being blunt, but they’re not good enough. Maybe a few of them will be very very good. But it’s too much to ask right now.

The clock is ticking. Before long, Sky Sports will be serving up their transfer deadline day festivities and I have a feeling we’ll be glued to the television waiting expectantly for that big signing we know is about to flash on the screen. Hopefully it’ll happen long before that.

When last season ended we knew there was a lot of work that had to be done to improve this team. We knew there would be money. We knew where the issues were and which players might be leaving. And before long, when the fixtures were announced, we knew that we would be in for a very difficult August that could define our season in many ways. We knew all of that, yet we did virtually nothing about it. Instead we continued to build for the future as if everything is alright today.

Frankly, I’m infuriated. I’m sick of being deceived and condescended to by my own Club. I’m sick of being told we have plenty of money and we’re not afraid to spend it while we sit back with our hands in our pockets. I’m sick of looking at the first team players on Arsenal.com wondering where the rest of them are, while the manager tells us that the team is already too big. I’m sick of meaningless sayings like “super super quality” and “like a new signing.”

Would it take “super super quality” to improve over Squillaci? I’m not sure it would even take a professional footballer. And Thomas Vermaelen is not “like a new signing.” He’s an actual signing that Wenger made two summers ago and he’s the exact reason why you go out and make signings. Because if Wenger brought in another player of Vermaelen’s quality it would have a profound impact on our defense.

Wenger made the argument that there’s a market for players from 0-10 million and a market for players from 30-50 million and in between there is no movement. That’s not true. It’s just not true. If he wants to tell us that he can’t find what he’s looking for that’s one thing but don’t lie to us. We could have Cahill if we met the asking price and it’s below 20 million. Same with Jagielka. We could’ve had Mata at just over 20 million. It’s not that the players weren’t available, it’s that we’ve turned our noses up at the prices. When you’ve got a cupboard full of delicious food, you can balk at the high price of groceries. But when the cupboard is bare, you’ve gone a week without eating, and your wallet is full, you pay what the grocer is asking.

What I want to make perfectly clear is that I completely trust Wenger’s judgment when it comes to talent. He won’t get every decision right, but he’s done better than most. But what I do want is for him to go buy players that can rightfully be expected to play important roles for a title contending team.

We may well stay in the top four this season. Our young talent is precocious and exciting and may mature faster than we can imagine. They could deliver the kind of performances necessary to keep Arsenal in the Champions League for another season. But they can’t deliver a title. It’s too much to ask. It may not even be fair to expect us to challenge for a title no matter who we buy when you consider the kind of money being spent at other clubs. But I don’t believe you use that as an excuse for inactivity.

I love Arsene Wenger but I love Arsenal more. Wenger has brought us players that could be an important part of our bright future and I’m thankful for that. But Arsene seems to have become impossibly farsighted. He appears more capable of seeing the distant needs of the club than the urgent demands right before his eyes. I don’t know which is worse: that Arsene Wenger sees the deficiencies in this squad but won’t address them, or that he merely cannot see them at all. Hopefully it’s neither. Hopefully he sees them and will address them. But he’s already mortgaged the early part of our season standing on principle. And that’s hard to accept.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In it, the Emperor parades around in what he believes are new clothes, but he is actually not wearing anything at all. His subjects assume that he must be wearing clothes and compliment him on his fine vestments, until a young boy shouts out that the Emperor is naked. It is a tale about many things, including the phenomenon of collective denial. I find it particularly appropriate for our current situation.

Arsene Wenger has been a fine manager indeed. And he may continue to be splendid for years to come. But we must not be in collective denial about the state of our squad. We must not assume that the Club know exactly what they are doing or have it all under control. We must not be distracted by stories of “super super quality” and “transfer supermarkets” and “traveling with sweat and petrol.” We must not be dazzled by the invisible garments. For they only take our attention off the reality that we can not afford to deny. We must look at the squad that will take the pitch against Liverpool tomorrow and see the truth clearly. The Emperor has no clothes.

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Arsenal 1 – 0 Udinese: Pass the Xanax

Theo celebrates his 4th minute goal...which was followed by 86 minutes of torture

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!

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Arsenal – Udinese LIVE BLOG

Join Yankee Gunner and Ashburton Grove for live text updates of
Arsenal’s Champions League clash from 7.30pm BST.

We’ll bring you interactive live commentary of the game hosted by AshburtonGrove.co.uk.

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Udinese First Leg Preview: Do or Die

This is our reward. This is what we get for finishing fourth in a two horse race. Back in February, with dreams of a Quadruple dancing in our heads, few fans expected us to be here in August. But this is our reality now. Top players leaving the club. Arsene Wenger beset by his once most loyal supporters. And Arsenal facing Udinese in a two-legged playoff for the right to play in the most prestigious club football tournament in the world.

It’s not the dream scenario by any means, but it’s not the end of the world. It sounds like excuse-making when Arsene says it, but there are plenty of teams that would kill for the chance to be in our situation today. Now the only thing that matters is getting the job done. No matter what your opinion of our summer business, there’s no arguing that failure to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League would be a staggering blow for Arsenal. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that our ability to buy the players we need for this campaign might depend, to some extend, on qualification. If true, then elimination by Udinese could have reverberations for our season that extend far beyond European participation.

Arsene gave his pre-match press conference today, flanked by Carl Jenkinson. I have to admit, I found it easy to like our new signing. He’s a gooner and a bright young man. He answered his few questions intelligently and didn’t add fuel to any fires in the process. Considering that our captain had been sold earlier in the day, that’s no small feat.

The manager will not be on the touchline for today’s game, nor will we have the services of Robin van Persie or Samir Nasri. More things we can essentially thank Barcelona for contributing to our lives. There’s hardly any injury news to report. Jack Wilshere is still not back from his ersatz ankle injury (that’s actually an achilles), and Tomas Rosicky will face a fitness test due to a groin injury picked up at Newcastle. Otherwise we have everyone available minus long-term absentee Abou Diaby.

Robin van Persie’s ban leaves the manager with an interesting decision to make. Marouane Chamakh would be considered out of form for a sunday league team, let alone Arsenal. Considering what’s at stake today, it’s nearly impossible for Arsene to pick the Moroccan. I’ve read so many articles suggesting that Chamakh has to start or his confidence will be truly destroyed. With all due respect, we’re past the point where a player’s confidence should be our priority. If we get eliminated from the Champions League next wednesday, we’ll have bigger problems on our hands than whether a player we got for free is worried about his playing time. In this case, Wenger must be ruthless and start the eleven players best equipped to win the match.

Before the press conference, I assumed that his only option other than Chamakh, was to play Theo, Gervinho, and Arshavin up front. The former two players can certainly do the job at center-forward. And while that wouldn’t give us much height in attack, that’s not a quality we’re particularly good at exploiting anyway. It would also offer a quick and elusive trio to keep Udinese’s defenders busy. But Wenger offered another somewhat surprising option.

Despite his clear intention to leave the club all summer, Nicklas Bendtner might be named in the side today. About Bendtner’s inclusion, Wenger said,

“In his interview Bendtner said he was gone, but I checked and he’s not gone at all! I promised I would let him go if he found the right club and that has not changed because when I make a promise I keep it. But if he doesn’t find the right opportunity he will stay and fight for his place like everybody else. He looks sharp in training.”

In many ways, this is excellent news. First, it means that Wenger is not delusional. He is aware that Chamakh is a shadow of his former self at the moment and cannot be relied upon in such a crucial fixtures. It also shows that Wenger is willing to do whatever it takes to win this game. He is not taking an ethical stand or protecting a transfer fee. He’s being pragmatic and that’s exactly what’s needed at the moment.

But I find something inherently puzzling about this situation. If losing RVP for a single match puts us in such a compromised position at center-forward that we have to use a player he still intends to sell, then that should send alarm bells ringing throughout the club. Arsene repeatedly characterizes us as an attacking side, but if we were to sell Bendtner, then we wouldn’t have a single, reliable central striker left at the club other than Van Persie. That’s an untenable situation for any team, let alone one that prides itself on scoring goals.

At this point, I think it would be best if Nik stayed at the club. All he ever wanted was a chance to play his natural position, rather than getting stuck out on the wing. But competition in the side prevented him from getting the playing time at center-forward that he coveted. Surely he would be able to get plenty of chances this season. Even if we were to buy another striker, there’s still probably ample opportunity for Nik to start at center-forward. But if Wenger doesn’t intend to buy a striker, then I simply don’t see how he has any choice but to keep the Dane at Arsenal for at least another term.

If only we had another creative midfielder. Maybe a Spaniard...

In midfield, we could have another selection problem on our hands. The three first-choice midfielders pick themselves. Rosicky, Ramsey and Song may not be the best trio we’ve seen over the years, but they’re certainly the best available now. I have to admit, considering the lack of creativity generated in midfield on Saturday, this area of the pitch has me concerned. But it gets really scary if Rosicky fails his fitness test. Then it’s anyone’s guess who starts in his place. Wenger could move Arshavin into midfield, but that leaves us short one wide-forward. And we basically don’t have another creative midfielder in the team. I don’t mean that in a sarcastic way. I mean we literally don’t have another one. So let’s hope Rosicky is fit enough to start. (After last season, did anyone think I’d be writing that before a crucial Champions League fixture?)

In a sign that the apocalypse is well and truly upon us, Arsenal are most settled in defense. Sagna, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Gibbs should start again at the back with Szczesny in goal. That unit looked solid on Saturday but could face a few more dangerous moments than they did against Newcastle.

Thankfully our defenders won’t have Alexis Sanchez to worry about. Along with Zapata and Inler, Alexis left Udinese this summer. The Chilean is a precocious talent that would’ve struck fear into the heart of our defense, but his absence means the biggest threat to Arsenal’s goal will come from two-time Serie A Capocannoniere (leading goal scorer) Antonio Di Natale. The 34 year-old can dribble, finish and still has some pace in his aging legs. If Arsenal want to head to Italy without conceding an away goal, then he’s the man we have to stop. In another stroke of good fortune, I believe Udinese will also be without alliterative forward Floro Flores, and defender Maurizio Domizzi through injury.

Arsenal cannot win the tie today, but we can just about lose it. Only a win and a clean sheet will calm our nerves heading back to Italy for the second leg. But it’s hard to know if that’s a reasonable expectation at the moment. We learned little from our trip to St. James’ and it’s unclear just how Cesc’s departure will have effected the players. We can only hope that they are eager to prove their quality and ready for the challenge.

There’s no denying that it’s a time of great uncertainty at Arsenal. Samir Nasri will surely be leaving the Emirates now that he has driven a wedge between himself and the fans. Meanwhile, the manager is under growing pressure from supporters to spend money on new signings or face their wrath. It’s the first time I can remember Arsene Wenger coming under such intense scrutiny, from more than a fringe group of Arsenal fans, since he arrived at the club. When you combine that with the loss of a very popular and talented player in Cesc Fabregas, and speculation surrounding other key members of the squad, it’s not worth contemplating the ramifications of failing to qualify for the Champions League.

So today’s 90 minutes are really the first half of a do-or-die match. We have to win and we have to try to win convincingly. The players on the pitch will be under intense pressure and some of them will not have faced anything quite like it. For that reason, it’s absolutely essential that the home fans provide raucous support. They have to sing and cheer and get behind the team from the opening kickoff until the final whistle.

I don’t care if you’re fed up with the manager. I don’t care if you’re furious with the board and the owner. I don’t care if you want to make your frustrations heard. You need to put those feelings aside for one day. Don’t do it for Arsene. Don’t do it for the players. Certainly don’t do it for Gadzidis or Hill-Wood or Kroenke. Do it for yourself. Because if Arsenal fail to qualify for the Champions League, the people that suffer the most are the fans. It’s you and me.

If Arsenal get eliminated by Udinese, we don’t get to watch Arsenal in the Champions League. We have to listen to pundits eulogize the death of Arsenal as a “big club.” We may lose more of our favorite players to other clubs and be denied the chance to see top-quality players brought in. We are the ones that will feel the sting of elimination most keenly. If we can avoid that hardship by putting our opinions aside for 90 minutes and lustily cheering the players to victory, isn’t it worth it? Isn’t it worth banding together with 60,000 fellow gooners to prevent today from being our last Champions League match at the Emirates this season? I have to believe that it is.

If the fans at the Emirates can reproduce the atmosphere we saw for last season’s Barcelona match, then Udinese don’t stand a chance. If the supporters create that kind of intimidating environment for the away side, then Arsenal will carry the day. But if the stadium is a tinder-box of anger waiting to explode; if there’s a palpable sense of impatience and nervousness that’s audible with every poor touch or errant pass; then I fear for our European campaign.

Victoria Concordia Crescit. Let’s make it mean something today.

If you can’t make it to the match and want to follow the action online with other Gooners, join me and Ashburton Grove for a live blog starting at 7:30pm BST. Visit Ashburtongrove.co.uk or follow the link below.

LIVE BLOG

COME ON YOU GUNNERS!

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No Time for Long Goodbyes

We had Cesc Fabregas, we had Cesc Fabregas...

Cesc Fabregas is an Arsenal player no more. After 303 games, he has returned to Barcelona. I would no sooner tell you how to react to a break-up with your spouse than tell you how to react to this transfer saga. So if your coping mechanism is to hate Cesc forever, then you won’t hear any complaints from me. Conversely, if you choose to remember him fondly, I find that perfectly understandable.

But let’s face facts for a moment. Sitting around debating whether he’s a legend or whether he should be vilified is a pointless exercise. In case anyone noticed there’s a football season underway and all that really matters now is how this transfer impacts us on the pitch. And as far as I’m concerned, we’ve just lost one of the best players in the world.

A lot of people have been discussing their favorite Fabregas moments over the past few days. There are certainly plenty to choose from and each one is a reminder of the quality he brought to the team. There’s the goal against AC Milan, the solo effort against Sp*rs and the broken-leg penalty kick against his new side. For me, there’s another appearance in particular that sums up just what Cesc meant to Arsenal.

On December 27, 2009, Aston Villa visited the Emirates. They were upstarts with top-four aspirations and entered the match level on points with us. Cesc Fabregas was only fit enough for the bench and through 56 minutes of the match we never looked likely to find a winning goal. It was a mostly stale performance devoid of real cutting edge from the home side. Then Cesc entered the game.

He lit up the stadium from the moment he stepped on the pitch and Villa had no answer for his creativity. We started creating scoring chances immediately and dominated the game from that point. Cesc scored a brace before leaving after 84 minutes with an aggravation of his injury. After the match, Arsene admitted it was a risk to play the captain but he felt that he had no choice.

Fabregas played only 26 minutes that day, but that was more than Aston Villa could handle. His introduction improved the performance of every Arsenal player and changed the entire dynamic of our attack. He gave everything he had to the cause, despite carrying an injury, and lifted the team to victory. That’s what Cesc was all about as a Gunner. Transcendent talent, responsibility on the pitch, and the creativity to improve everyone’s game.

I realize that it’s difficult to praise a player that has just spurned us. It’s important to rally around the players that we still have and give them our fullest support. But it’s also important to be realistic. Let’s drop the act for a moment. We don’t have another Cesc Fabregas in the side. Aaron Ramsey is a wonderful player and will only improve, but he’s not Cesc. Neither is Jack. Neither is Rosicky, or Song, or Frimpong, or Arshavin, or any other player you want to name. And Nasri isn’t in Cesc’s class whatsoever, despite the fact that he may soon be on a much higher wage than the Spaniard. Losing Cesc makes us a weaker side.

Lately a lot of Gooners have pointed out that when a big player leaves a club it often has the effect of raising everyone else’s level. Players step up and take responsibility that they might otherwise have left to the departing super-star. But I don’t think that applies in this case. For one thing, Cesc is still improving. This is not a situation like it was with Thierry where his career was beginning its decline. And unlike a striker or a winger who often does his best work through selfishness, Cesc’s best qualities were on display when he was providing for his teammates.

It’s an overused statistic at this point, but Cesc created more goal scoring chances than any other player in the top European leagues over the last six seasons. Cesc played vastly more key passes than any other player at Arsenal and often played more than 100 passes in a match. He was not a player that diminished the contributions of his teammates. Quite the contrary, he gave them the opportunity to excel. Arsenal’s winning percentage when Cesc was in the team was always better than when he was out. So while I would love to believe that every Arsenal player will be enhanced by his move to Barcelona, the facts don’t seem to support that conclusion.

Arsenal didn’t get close to the transfer fee that should’ve been paid for Cesc Fabregas. But the fact remains that we are now at least 29 million Euros richer, and have two weeks before the transfer window closes to go shopping. Arsene Wenger must reinvest the proceeds from the sale immediately. He has to buy at least one creative player to replace Cesc. More realistically, since few players in the world are at Cesc’s level, and it’s almost unthinkable that we would invest 29 million Euroes in a single signing, it would behoove Arsene to buy more than one player.

Although I have questioned some of the decision making at Arsenal this summer, I refuse to accept that the club is run by half-wits. Wenger might not have wanted to believe Cesc was off, but he must have acknowledged the possibility. As such, I expect that he has already identified transfer targets he would pursue in the even that Cesc was sold. Now that Cesc is gone, I would hope we can bring those players in relatively quickly. We certainly took our time concluding the Fabregas business, so there’s no excuse for being unable to expeditiously acquire reinforcements.

We already knew that the start of the season would be a stern test with Cesc and Nasri unlikely to feature. Now we face the grim prospect of playing Liverpool, United and Swansea without Song and Gervinho who will likely be handed 3 match bans. As things currently stand, that means we can expect to see plenty of Emmanuel Frimpong in these key fixtures, as well as potentially relying on youngsters like Oxlade-Chamberlain or Ryo Miyachi.

With no disrespect intended to any of the players I named, it’s unfair to expect them to be ready for that challenge. And with no timetable set for Jack Wilshere’s return from injury, that means our already thin midfield will be stretched even further. It adds additional urgency to Arsene’s transfer business. He simply cannot afford to rely on what he has within the team at this point. And Saturday’s performance at Newcastle confirms that conclusion.

There are two ways to look at Saturday’s draw at St. James’ Park. Taken purely in the context of the new Premier League season, it’s far from calamity. It’s simply an away draw at a difficult ground. Chelsea failed to win at Stoke. Liverpool failed to win at home versus Sunderland. While United managed an unsurprising but somewhat fortuitous three points at WBA. None of our rivals sparkled on opening weekend although Manchester City has yet to play. In that respect, taking a point from our travels was certainly an acceptable result.

But when you view the Newcastle match in the larger scheme of things, you can take a somewhat bleaker view. The new-look midfield of Ramsey, Rosicky and Song lacked a cutting-edge. The front three weren’t getting the service they needed, and at times there was simply no one coming back to pick up the ball from the defense. Jack Wilshere’s absence certainly played a big role in that impotency, but we will have plenty of matches this season where we don’t have our first choice midfielders. At the moment there’s a decided lack of depth in the creative positions.

Theo Walcott came on from the bench after an hour, but rather than taking off Ramsey or Rosicky and moving Arshavin into midfield, it was the Russian who left the match. Arsenal were clearly crying out for new ideas in the middle of the park, but the simple fact is that there wasn’t a single alternative on the bench. Wenger had Theo, Djourou, Jenkinson, Frimpong, Chamakh and Oxlade-Chamberlain to choose from. Not one creative midfielder among them, and really only one senior squad member that you’d expect to add something to the game at this point in his career.

It was clear what we needed but we simply didn’t have it available. For me, our lack of midfield options was a glaring reminder that you can’t sell Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri in the same summer, not buy a replacement, and expect anything other than diminishing returns. I’m not suggesting for one moment that replacements won’t be bought. I’m merely pointing out that we had the worst of both worlds on Saturday. Nasri and Cesc weren’t playing, but no replacements had yet arrived. Just imagine if we already had replacements for Cesc and Nasri and they were named in the squad. Would the game have been different if they were in the starting XI with Arshavin and Rosicky on the bench rather than Oxlade-Chamberlain and Frimpong? It’s hard not to think so.

We also got our first look at our biggest signing of the summer in competitive action. Gervinho’s build-up play was magnificent at times. But his inability to pick a final ball was reminiscent of Theo Walcott’s least effective moments at Arsenal. Naturally it was only one game, but he will now miss three league matches thanks to his red card. That’s three important chances to acclimate. And while I’m understanding of his reaction to Joey Barton’s thuggery, we are a club that desperately needs to show more composure than we saw last season. This incident was merely more of the same. It was hardly different from Diaby’s sending off in February. Alex Song also allowed himself to be baited into a moment of indiscipline and now we look certain to be without him for three matches as well.

But the game was far from dire. We had plenty of chances to create goal-scoring opportunities that went begging. Arshavin missed an easy pass to Gervinho with only one man to beat. Djourou had two options on a counter attack that would’ve sent RVP or Theo in on goal. Van Persie’s first touch in the penalty area let him down repeatedly, and I’ve already mentioned Gervinho’s failure to pick a final ball after frequently getting past defenders.

It’s also very important that we praise the defending from Arsenal. Thomas Vermaelen’s return was a welcome sight and his partnership with the excellent Laurent Koscielny looked solid despite facing few Newcastle attacks. We were comfortable defending set-pieces throughout the match and Szczesny looked very assured when called upon. Perhaps the most important performance came from Gibbs who hardly put a foot wrong after a summer spent worrying that he wasn’t ready to be our first choice left-back.

If anything, my conclusion from Saturday’s match is that Arsene Wenger has been right all along in his assessment of what this team needs. He has repeatedly suggested that we are an attacking side and we need more attacking options. I would argue that we might be able to survive with the defenders we already have in the squad. While I’d like another defender to arrive, I can see a scenario where we succeed without one. Conversely, I cannot imagine Arsenal competing for a title without adding depth in midfield and at striker. If Arsene were to go out and buy a quality creative player and a top class striker now, without signing a defender, I think I would probably consider that sufficient.

Once again Arsenal can complain that the referee got a critical decision wrong. It’s hard to suggest Gervinho shouldn’t have been sent off, but there’s no question that Barton should have gone as well. He’s a player who’s always on the brink of losing control or injuring an opponent. Anyone who suggests he adds grit and determination to a match needs to remember that those qualities can be provided without violent behavior.

If Barton's here, then who's running Hell?

Pardew’s mealymouthed defense of Barton after the match was difficult to endure. But it made pleasant listening compared to the player’s inane ranting on twitter. You have to laugh at a self-professed “hard man” falling to the ground in a heap from having his face touched. And, I fail to understand how the appropriate response to being incensed about diving is to dive.

What’s worse, is that Gervinho did not dive. I’m not convinced he deserved a penalty, but I am certain there was contact. Something that Barton has since acknowledged while pandering to Match of the Day. But it’s a bit hypocritical to debate the outcome of the scuffle when Song should’ve been sent off for his earlier stamp. Ultimately these incidents could have far more impact on our season than the result of the match itself.

As the match wore on, you could clearly hear lusty renditions of last season’s “spend some f**king money” chant sung by the away fans. Naturally this has sparked a debate about how to support the club. It’s no secret that growing segments of Arsenal’s fan-base feel betrayed by the board and let down by the manager. The summer business has not lived up to expectations or, indeed, to promises. That’s only served to increase the frustration that seemed ready to boil over at the end of last season.

I questioned the chant on twitter, by suggesting that it wasn’t the appropriate time to deliver that message. But @arse2mouse astutely pointed out that there really is no other time. The easiest way for the fans to make the manager aware of their feelings is to express them during a match. If not then, when? After all, that chant won’t do much good after the transfer window closes.

I would merely question the timing in this case. Late in the game, down a man, and battling for all three points at a hostile ground, I can’t help but feel it might not have been in our best interest. What I must acknowledge is that the away supporters are undoubtedly among the most loyal, dedicated, and vocal fans at the club. If that’s how they want to express their frustration, while I might disagree with the timing, I refuse to condemn the behavior.

It is worth pointing out that Arsene has spent money this summer. Not every fan will agree with how he’s spent it, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has dipped into the transfer budget. In order to spend the big money, he needs to cash in on Cesc and Nasri first. And when the match kicked-off on Saturday, neither had been sold. So the supporters’ demands that he “spend some f**king money” will now be properly tested following the sale of Fabregas.

Let’s face it, no manager can survive when the fans support for him lives and dies with every result. Once you reach that point the situation is usually untenable. If we are going to see a vocal outpouring of fan disdain 70 minutes into every unsatisfactory performance, then I’d suggest we are heading for an even more difficult campaign than we already anticipated. Unless we want to live in a state of constant upheaval, we are going to have to get behind the team and the manager no matter the infuriation we may feel at how the club’s being run at the moment.

Today we usher in a new era at Arsenal. The captain is dead, long live the captain. Robin van Persie is now our skipper as the team moves on without Cesc Fabregas. No one at Arsenal knew Cesc better or loved him more than his manager. So no one should have a deeper understanding of just how much quality we lost. It’s now up to Arsene Wenger to figure out how to replace him.

In the mean time, we have just 24 hours until we face Udinese in the first leg of our Champions League playoff. It will also be our first home game of the season. And if the fans can create an atmosphere like the one against Barcelona last season, it could be enough to carry the players to victory. For the sake of Arsenal Football Club, I genuinely hope that’s what happens.

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Ashburton Grove & Yankee Gunner live blog for NUFC-Arsenal

Join Ashburton Grove and Yankee Gunner for live text commentary of Arsenal’s first Premier League game of the season from 5.15pm.

We’ll bring you the team news as soon as we have it, followed by interactive live commentary of the game from St James Park.

Follow the link below to enter the live blog:

Live Blog for Newcastle-Arsenal

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