Injuries, Internationals, & Integration

After transfer deadline day, the mood among Arsenal fans was surprisingly positive considering our domestic results thus far.  A fistful of new signings offered the opportunity of a fresh start.  The honeymoon, however, has not lasted long.  If there was anything likely to puncture the morale of the supporters, it was injuries.

Surprisingly enough, the worst news has not come from participants in the dreaded interlull.  Although both Tomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott missed their respective games last night with minor muscle strains, they’re not expected to be major doubts for Saturday.  The worst news has come from two players who stayed at home with what we had believed to be relatively minor problems.  Turns out, in true Arsenal fashion, they’re much worse than we feared.  On Monday it was confirmed that Jack Wilshere will miss at least two months, and then yesterday Arsenal revealed that Thomas Vermaelen had undergone an operation which means he will miss at least a month of training.  His likely return date is the home game with Sunderland on October 16th, meaning he’ll miss Champions League ties with Dortmund and Olympiacos as well as the North London Derby.

The news casts a slightly different light on our transfer activity – the staff would have been well aware of these injuries when negotiating for the likes of Mertesacker and Arteta – and means those players will immediately become integral to the side.  The big German wore the captain’s armband for Germany last night (in a game in which Wojciech Szczesny was outstanding for Poland), and should be ready to go straight in to the team on Saturday alongside Laurent Koscielny.

In midfield, Alex Song will still be suspended, so Mikel Arteta should start alongside Emmanuel Frimpong and Aaron Ramsey.  Ramsey was named Man of the Match in Wales 1-0 defeat at Wembley last night, and gave a commanding midfield performance as captain.  With the departure of Cesc and Nasri on top of Wilshere’s injury, it’s clearly a huge season for Aaron.  I don’t doubt his talent, but sometimes he seems to try too hard, playing 50-yard Hollywood passes when a simple ball is on.  It’s easy to forget what a fantastic recovery he’s made from his broken leg, and perhaps he’s just a little over-eager to make up for lost time.  If he can start to use the ball more maturely that will be a big step along the road back to where he was just prior to his injury.

Frimpong, meanwhile, has once again declared his intention to play for Ghana.  Selfishly, I’d like him to play for England: a) because it means we won’t lose him for African Nations football, and b) because I’m an England fan!  That said, he was born in Accra and his Ghanaian heritage clearly means an enormous amount to him, so best of luck to him.  There are African Nations tournaments in January 2012 AND 2013 – the only consolation being that Cameroon are unlikely to qualify for this season’s tournament, meaning we won’t be entirely bereft of defensive midfielders.

Upfront, there’s a slim possibility of a debut for Park, who has scored again for Korea – that’s now four in his last two games.  It’s clear he’s a decent technical finisher, and in a team like ours he’s certain to get chances.  I actually think that at the end of the season we may look back on his signing as something of a bargain.

We may also witness a home debut for teenage flyer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  The teenager has been in superb form over the International break with England U-21s, with this cameo against Israel particularly impressive, setting up all four England goals:

It sounds like he made a decent impression off the pitch too, when the squad decided to have an ‘X-Factor night’ bonding session. The Daily Mail claims:

“Arsenal’s man-of-the-moment Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – according to observers – ‘brought the house down’ when impersonating Will Smith by rapping the theme tune to his old comedy series, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

On a serious note, he looks a hell of a talent: quick, powerful with an eye for a pass.  We shouldn’t let any disappointment that bigger names didn’t arrive cloud the fact we’ve signed a hugely promising youngster here.

We’re slightly fortunate that the injuries to Wilshere and Vermaelen come at a time when the fixture list is a little less daunting than it has been until now.  In September we have home games with Swansea, Shrewsbury, Bolton and Olympiacos, as well as trips to Dortmund and Blackburn.  In that period we are able to welcome back Song and Gervinho from suspension, as well as adding five new signings in to the mix.  It is no exaggeration to say that, with our new look squad, all those games are winnable.  What a different season it would look then.

Come on Gunners.  Let’s turn this around.  Starting on Saturday.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Liverpool: Cracks widening with every game

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Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

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.