Quite often, I get criticised in the ‘Comments’ section of this blog for being “too positive”. I’m accused of being sycophantic to the manager and blind to the club’s problem. Those readers will probably enjoy this blog a little more. Equally, I hope that those fans who enjoy my more positive outlook will forgive the sombre mood of this post – but I was deeply alarmed by what I witnessed today.
When Arsenal took to the field at St. James’ Park a week ago, our first XI looked decent enough. It was the bench that bothered me. One week, and a few predictable injuries later, those substitutes have been promoted and are getting game-time. Their inexperience and insufficiency was exploited ruthlessly as Liverpool recorded their first victory away to Arsenal of Arsene’s reign. A watershed result in a watershed month for the manager.
I’m not blaming the kids. The likes of Jenkinson, Frimpong, Ramsey and Miquel tried their very best. Unfortunately, however, they made rookie errors which, at this level, simply don’t go unpunished. The truth is that they oughtn’t have been out there today – it is not their fault that the squad has been stripped of experience.
In the first half we were performing well enough without creating any chances of note, until we lost Laurent Koscielny to a back injury. That setback saw Miquel introduced, and a nervy Arsenal never really found their footing again. Watching in the stands, the match had a 0-0 draw written all over it – Liverpool were seemingly happy to park their five man midfield and take a valuable point.
The game hinged on the sending off of Emmanuel Frimpong. Along with the outstanding Thomas Vermaelen, Frimpong had been Arsenal’s best player, but after clattering Lucas Frimpong picked up a second booking and had to go. Over-enthusiasm and a rush of adrenaline put an end to what was otherwise an outstanding full debut – the FA should be doing everything they can to convince him to change his mind and play for England.
Liverpool, smelling blood, introduced Luis Suarez, who set about tormenting our backline with his speed and movement. The goals Liverpool got were admittedly graced with luck: both appeared to be offside, and one was the result of a calamitous own goal after Miquel’s clearance hit Ramsey and looped over the advancing Szczesny. But with ten men and a defence of Sagna at left-back, Jenkinson at right-back, and Vermaelen and Miquel in the middle we were asking for trouble. For the first time I found myself wondering with concern just where Sebastien Squillaci was.
Miquel did alright, and can obviously pass a ball, but was understandably nervy. He wasn’t alone in putting in a less than inspiring performance: Sagna looked uncomfortable at left-back, Jenkinson was committed but struggled on the ball, Ramsey was erratic, Walcott anonymous, and Arshavin awful. But, at the moment, they’re all we have.
The knocks and suspensions we’re picking up are unfortunate. But we know we have a squad prone to injury and discipline, and have taken no steps to counter that. When Liverpool went ahead, a good number of fans chanted aggressively, imploring Arsene to spend some money. I didn’t join in – at that point, the team were still very much in the game and needed our support. I did, however, entirely understand the sentiment.
Liverpool weren’t brilliant today, but their team looked an awful lot better than it did twelve months ago – and this, let’s remember, was without Gerrard and with Suarez starting on the bench. It’s no coincidence that since January, they’ve spent about £100m. Yes, they’ve overpaid for some players, but they’ve got the personnel they needed. And they’re better for it.
There is a lot to be learnt from their handling of the Fernando Torres sale. Torres was a symbolic and pivotal figure at Anfield – much like Cesc was at Arsenal. After selling him to Chelsea, they immediately replaced him with players able to come in and make an immediate impact in their first team. Crucially, it also gave the entire club a lift, and convinced players and supporters alike that they would recover from the transfer. I’m not advocating anything as absurd as paying £35m for Andy Caroll, but some new additions would not only plug the gaping holes in the squad, but also give the whole club a boost.
Those holes will widen further if Samir Nasri leaves next week. The headline news was that he started the game, and I thought he did OK. During the match a story broke on French TV station Canal Plus that the deal with Manchester City may have fallen through – I have to say I doubt that very much indeed. Arsene Wenger said he knew nothing about it after the game, but City officials are privately briefing journalists that they’re confident a move will go ahead. Wednesday will act as a deadline of sorts – if he plays against Udinese, he would be cup-tied for the Champions League (IF Arsenal qualify).
Whether he stays or not, I wish Arsene would stop telling us how much Nasri “loves” the club. Today he said:
“I have always said I will try to keep Samir Nasri. I have never changed my mind. I played him, much to the surprise of everybody, because he loves this club and at the moment I am happy he is here.”
Right, let’s get this straight: Samir Nasri doesn’t love this club. Or, if he does, it’s a love which comes second to monetary gain, which is no kind of love I know.
The fans in that stadium today love the club. Unlike Nasri, they’re putting their money in to the club rather than taking it out. And unlike Nasri, they’ll be here next week. And next season. And beyond.
I didn’t join those who left early, or who booed. But I understand why they’re frustrated. For the first time, I have serious doubts about our ability to qualify for the Champions League both for this season and next. I hope, with all my heart, that I’m proved wrong.