In some respects, this game was much like the equivalent fixture last season. Arsenal dominated the first half, fell away in the second, and had a French-speaking black man sent off for a spat with Joey Barton.
Missing were two key ingredients: a stomach-turning, apocalyptic sense of despair; and goals. A 0-0 is quite an unusual thing for an Arsenal team, and suggests two things. 1) We were surprisingly assured at the back – 2) we were surprisingly lacklustre in attack.
The team was as I expected, with Laurent Koscielny and Andrey Arshavin picked ahead of Johan Djourou and Theo Walcott. From our existing crop of centre-backs, Koscielny and Vermaelen is clearly Arsene’s preferred pairing. Walcott, meanwhile, is only just returning from injury, and with Cesc and Nasri both absent the manager was always likely to plump for Arshavin’s craft.
In the first half we dominated without actually creating too many clear-cut opportunities. Tomas Rosicky had a good opportunity early on but, having gone 34 league games without a goal, never looked convincing. Gervinho was lively, exhibiting some direct dribbling and elusive moment, but all too often his final ball was inaccurate. The closest we came was through Laurent Koscielny, who beat a hesitant Tim Krul to Rosicky’s corner, only to see his header cleared off the line.
Newcastle barely threatened, and when they did Wojciech Szczesny was in dominant form, showing great confidence to come off his line and punch the ball away whenever the opposition put a threatening ball in to the box.
Newcastle’s 4-4-2 formation meant they constantly found themselves outnumbered, so at half-time Alan Pardew introduced Gabriel Obertan, who played from a little deeper than Demba Ba. Newcastle improved, particularly defensively – it would’ve been impossible for them to play much worse – and as a spectacle the game dropped off. The second half will live longer in the memory, however, because it was punctuated by two very unsavoury incidents.
It will not surprise you to know that Joey Barton was involved in both. First off, he lunged in to an untidy tackle on Alex Song. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it didn’t warrant what followed, as Song maliciously stamped down on Barton’s unguarded ankle.
It was an incredibly stupid thing to do. For one thing, Song was already walking a tight-rope having been booked. As it is, the fact that the referee missed it means he’s likely to be pulled before the FA and handed a three-match ban for violent conduct, missing games against Liverpool and United in the process. With Jack Wilshere also a doubt due to an achilles injury, that’s the last thing we need.
The incident clearly riled Barton, who stormed off the pitch to ask why the fourth official hadn’t communicated what had happened to the referee. God knows what he’d have done if the fourth official had answered honestly: the batteries on his walky-talky had run out.
With fifteen minutes to go came the game’s second major talking point. Gervinho, who had switched flanks throughout the contest, darted down the left in to the penalty area, and skipped inside Cheikh Tiote. As he did so, he went to ground.
The first question is: was it a dive? Match of the Day’s Alan Shearer, who is as quick as any pundit to throw out the ‘Johnny Foreigner’ cliches, felt it wasn’t, and I’m inclined to agree. Whilst Gervinho undoubtedly left his foot in and went to ground easily, there was contact. The referee didn’t blow for a penalty, but nor did he go to give Gervinho a yellow card for simulation. In fact, he turned his back on the incident, and waved play on.
And this is when Barton saw fit to get involved. Charging up to Gervinho, he dragged the Ivorian to his feet, and in the resulting melee Gervinho reached a hand out and slapped Barton on the side of the head. The debutant was sent off, and Barton booked.
It was reminiscent, of course, of last season, when Abou Diaby was dismissed for reacting to a horrible tackle from Barton. There’s no doubt in my mind that Barton was out to get an Arsenal player sent off as ‘revenge’ for the Song incident. Barton is the type of player who gets involved purely to induce that sort of outcome – it’s not coincidence that these incidents follow him around. Pundits will sometimes call these players ‘great wind-up merchants’ – Wise, Savage, Bellamy – everyone else calls them horrible little shits.
The way he reacted to Gervinho’s tap on the face, falling to the ground as if he’d been shot, with Steven Taylor (who has a history of that kind of thing himself) miming an elbowing motion was rather embarrassing. After the game Alan Pardew defended Barton’s attack on Gervinho by saying “no professional likes to see diving”. But it’s OK to writhe around on the floor after being caught by what is essentially a pat on the head?
Gervinho was, I hasten to add, no angel. He didn’t make much contact with Barton’s head, but that was largely because he was off-balance. Let’s be honest: he wasn’t reaching out for a tender stroke, or to gently replace the preposterous fringe Barton was sporting.
I can understand why Song and Gervinho reacted the way they did to Barton’s provocation, but I’m still disappointed. It’s no excuse to say, “he started it”. Barton is a twisted individual whose consuming anger has forced him to seek medical and psychological treatment. He is someone whose consistently aggressive behaviour makes it difficult for him to exist peacefully in wider society. He is no barometer by which we should judge our own players. Part of their responsibility, as professionals, is not to respond to idiots like him.
I think Arsene called it right when he said post-game that the referee should have given Gervinho and Barton equal punishments. There is nothing in the rules that says that “raising your hands” is an automatic sending off. The definition of violent conduct is employing “excessive force or brutality against an opponent”. I’m not sure either Gervinho or Barton were guilty of that, and if anyone was excessively forceful it was certainly Barton. Amusingly enough, what Barton did to Gervinho should probably have resulted in a spot-kick being rewarded anyway, as play had continued.
The frustrating thing is that the referee didn’t actually see what took place, but having booked Barton there is no chance of him being punished retrospectively. I expect Gervinho’s ban to be upheld, and for him to be joined in a three-game sin bin by Alex Song.
After that brief drama the game petered out. Arsene brought on Johan Djourou and debutant Emmanuel Frimpong to shore things up, and despite a couple of late chances to release sub Theo Walcott, the match ended in a 0-0.
And so, we kick off our campaign with a draw, which I probably would’ve taken before the game. Credit must go to our defence, who coped well with an admittedly tame Newcastle attack. I thought the back four of Gibbs, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Sagna looked composed throughout, and it was particularly great to see the Belgian back, even embarking on a couple of trademark marauding runs up the field.
Further up the field, however, we lacked precision in our passing in and around the box. As Arsene might put it, we “lacked a little sharpness”. Despite dominating possession, we barely created a single clear-cut chance from open play.
What distressed me most, however, was how little flexibility we had to change from the bench. Our substitutes were:
Fabianski – Jenkinson – Djourou – Frimpong – Chamberlain – Walcott – Chamakh
Of the outfield players, only Djourou, Walcott and Chamakh have any kind of Premier League experience, and with Chamakh looking out-of-sorts a rusty Walcott was the only real option. When you consider that there was only one player excluded because of injury – Jack Wilshere – the squad begins to look incredibly thin. The suspensions for Gervinho and most likely Song are only going to make that situation worse.
If Eboue, Nasri, Fabregas and Bendtner really do depart, as seems certain, then Arsene simply has to bring in at least three players to replace them. Anything less will leave us with a squad that is, in my opinion, unlikely to qualify for the Champions League.
Watching us on the pitch yesterday suddenly brought home the significance of losing Cesc and Nasri all the more clear to me. These are huge, huge players. Aaron Ramsey is a talented and characterful kid, but he’s not even close to their level. Replacements are necessary if we’re to achieve our minimum aim of a top four finish, let alone challenge for major honours.
Anyway. There will be time to talk about that. For now, we have to concentrate on preparing for Udinese on Tuesday – by which time, our coffers could be significantly swollen.