City 1 – 0 Arsenal: No points but plenty of pride

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Thomas Vermaelen reacts after another near miss at the Etihad

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Our first trip to Manchester since that fateful day in late August was always going to carry a certain weight.  Back then, a very different-looking Arsenal side had left thrashed, embarrassed, and ashamed.  This time, we might not have brought back any points, but we can at least hold our heads up high on the back of an impressive performance.

It’s indicative of how far we’ve come.  Since Old Trafford, we’ve added experience, steel and belief to the squad.  Arsenal entered yesterday’s game as an unfancied underdog, and ended up trading blows with a the richest club in world football.  It is typical of Arsene Wenger’s relentless ambition that after the game he was disheartened at what he felt was the end of our title challenge.  Personally, I have felt for some time that City will win the league at a canter, and that in any case our bad start was far too big a handicap from which to launch a bid for the championship.  A Champions League spot, however, remains a realistic target.  In August, even that seemed unlikely.

We started somewhat shakily, as it swiftly became evident that City are the strongest side we’ve faced in some time.  The movement and skill of the likes of Silva, Aguero and Balotelli had our defence chasing shadows, and twice we relied upon impressive saves from Wojciech Szczesny to keep the score at 0-0.

Alex Song was yellow-carded for a cynical trip after just ten minutes, and spent the rest of the game walking a precarious tight-rope.  It was a tight-rope that the likes of Micah Richards attempted to topple him off by throwing themselves to the ground every time Song even thought about going in to a challenge.

As the half wore on, we settled and began to offer a threat of our own.  The pace and movement of Gervinho made him a constant menace, but he suffered from the now familiar flaw of failing to convert promising opportunities in to final product.  When he did muster a shot on target, Joe Hart was able to turn it away at the near post.

Having reached half-time at 0-0, there was a growing sense that Arsenal could pull off a major result.  However, our momentum was disrupted when, just two minutes in to the second half, Johan Djourou was withdrawn with an injury problem.  The Swiss had been doing a fine job at right-back, but his withdrawal meant shifting Laurent Koscielny on to the flank.  Vermaelen stepped in to to the centre alongside Mertesacker, and substitute Miquel played at left-back.  It’s odd how injuries seem to strike in one particular area – we’re now without our five first choice full-backs (Sagna, Jenkinson, Gibbs, Santos, Djorou).

The reshuffle worried me.  In an ideal world you’d bring on a like-for-like player, as it’s very difficult for a defender to reorientate himself during the game.  And so it proved just five minutes later, with Koscielny caught out of position, leaving Balotelli free on the left flank.  He skipped inside a cautious Song and fired in a shot with Szczesny parried.  Aguero was first to the ball and his header was poked in by David Silva.

At this stage, Arsenal threw caution to the wind a little earlier than was necessary, and were very nearly punished.  As men poured forward in search of an equaliser, City had several opportunities to extend their lead.  Fortunately, we were spared.  Samir Nasri, who had been afforded a rare start by City, made his major contribution to the game when he overhit a simple pass across goal, preventing Balotelli from tapping in to seal the game.  Bizarrely, the City PA announced him as Man of the Match towards the end of the game – a stupid, inflammatory decision which clearly had nothing to do with what had transpired on the pitch.

It was clear we had them rattled though.  A fierce Walcott drive was tipped over by Hart, and Robin van Persie chipped home, only to be flagged (correctly, but marginally) offside.  On another day Micah Richards’ handball might have been deemed purposeful, or Van Persie might have connected truer with Gervinho’s cut-back.

If you were to fault anything yesterday, it would have been the lack of convincing attacking options from the bench.  City were able to call on the likes of Edin Dzeko.  We, however, were forced to gamble with Arshavin and Chamakh, both of whom are woefully out of form.  There are increasingly fervent whispers that Arsene will look to strengthen the attack in January, with Thierry Henry one of the names most commonly-mentioned.  However, signings aside, one does have to question how long someone under performing as badly as Arshavin can prevent the exciting Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from superseding him in the pecking order.

In all honesty, our biggest goal threat after Robin van Persie probably came from Thomas Vermaelen.  The Belgian had headed on target in the first half, and late on he saw one side-footed effort from the edge of the box tipped over by Hart, before bending a thirty yard strike just outside the post.  Hart performed well on the day, but even he would have been unable to keep that effort out.

And so the day ended in defeat.  Arsenal now have to pick themselves up in time for Wednesday’s trip to Aston Villa, who surely can’t be as poor as they were in a lifeless defeat to Liverpool.  Alex Song will be suspended, but fortunately we will be able to rely on the sure-footed Mikel Arteta.  I thought the Spaniard was brilliant in Manchester: disciplined, intelligent, and composed.  The more one sees of him the more one wonders why Arsene waited so long before taking the plunge.

My overriding sense from the City game is that these sorts of occasion need hold no fear for us anymore.  The scars of Old Trafford were entirely invisible: this was an Arsenal side playing with belief and a sense of entitlement that they belong on this stage, at the top table of English football.  Between now and the end of the season, we need to pick up enough points to snatch fourth place and ensure we remain there.
 

Nasri won’t be missed like Cesc

Samir Nasri

“Imagine the worst situation — we lose Fabregas and Nasri. You cannot convince people you are ambitious after that.

You can’t then pretend you are a big club, because a big club holds on to its best players and gives a message out to all the other big clubs that they can’t come in and take our players.”
Arsene Wenger, July 11th

August 15th: Cesc Fabregas signs for Barcelona

August 24th: Samir Nasri signs for Man City

It seems a long time ago now, but when Samir Nasri arrived at the club, it was as a replacement for the outgoing Aleksandr Hleb.  After a largely indifferent few years, Hleb had one impressive campaign as a key component of Arsenal’s title charge in 2007/08.  It would be his final season, as Hleb moved on at the first opportunity, joining Barcelona after threatening to invoke the ‘Webster’ ruling and buy out his contract.

Nasri’s departure certainly evokes memories of Hleb’s exit.  Last season was comfortably the Frenchman’s best, and seems to have left him with both an inflated ego and idea of what he ought to be paid.  After turning down a £90,000 p/week contract extension, Nasri left Arsenal with a clear choice: sell him now, or risk losing him for free in twelve months time.

For me, it’s a no-brainer.  As Arsene pointed out, both “economically and psychologically”, the club only had one option.  And, for economic and psychological reasons, Arsenal will be quietly delighted to have sold the player to City rather than United: his original suitors.  It’s worth noting that whilst Hleb left for the mediterranean sun and footballing Mecca of Barcelona, Nasri is moving to Manchester.  Whilst I’m sure he has doubts about Arsenal’s ambition, it’s clear that money has been the major motivating factor.

Hleb’s career has tumbled downhill since leaving: he has found himself unable to replicate his success at Arsenal elsewhere.  He’s an unusual, idiosyncratic footballer, who needs a manager with the patience to indulge a player who, whilst technically brilliant, is prone to overelaboration and seems to be allergic to shooting.

Samir Nasri will have no such problems adapting.  He’s a more effective but more straightforward footballer: quick, skilful, and a smart finisher.  However, by the same token, he is also easier to replace.  Whilst hugely talented, he lacks the intangible quality of ‘vision’ that marked out Cesc Fabregas, say, or even Hleb.  As a goalscoring wide-attacker, the likes of Gervinho and Walcott are well-placed to try and fill the gap left by Nasri’s departure.

The bigger problem remains the creative void created by Fabregas’ move.  Arsene’s plan, of course, was to use Nasri in that role.  As outlined above, I’m not sure he would’ve been the right man for the job.  Cesc was good for twenty assists per season.  I don’t have the stats in front of me, but I believe last season Nasri got one.  Nasri can walk through an open door with plenty of style; Arsenal need someone who can unpick a lock.

Arsene may live to regret the statement of the top of this piece – but he doesn’t have to.  If he spends the £50m or so he’s received for Nasri and Cesc on players of similar quality, then all is recoverable.

Five days.  And counting.

Four factors in another massive week for Arsenal

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To my slight surprise, I’m jetting off to the continent this week.  I’ll spend much of it locked in a room, away from internet access and my beloved Arsenal.  It’s unfortunate timing.  All summer a host of Arsenal bloggers, including myself, have heralded the start of a “big week” at Arsenal.  This week might just be the biggest of them all, for the following four reasons:

Champions League Qualification

I don’t need to tell you how important this is, both economically and for the morale and stature of the club.  We’re so accustomed to dining at Europe’s top table that actually securing qualification would be met more with relief than joy, but don’t let that mask its significance.

Udinese showed in the first leg that they’ll provide a huge test for us, especially with our injury problems.  We could also be without Arsene Wenger on the touchline, after UEFA extended his touchline ban by two games for “not abiding by the decision of the control and disciplinary body during the Champions League play-off game against Udinese last Tuesday”.  Arsene will be furious, as he and the club spoke directly with UEFA before the game to make sure they would not be in breach of the regulations.  Presumably if Arsene appeals the decision, the ban could be delayed, which would allow him to be pitchside on Wednesday.

The latest news on the playing front suggests that both Jack Wilshere and Johan Djourou could be in contention, which would be a massive boost.  Song and Gervinho are also eligible, and Robin van Persie will be able to take part after missing the first leg through suspension.  There is another player who was suspended from that first leg, whose potential participation is already the subject of some debate…

Samir Nasri

If Arsene picks Samir Nasri on Wednesday, and Arsenal qualify, he will be unable to play for another club in the Champions League this season.  Obviously, that would jeopardise any move to Manchester City.  Therefore, I expect some clarity in the next 48 hours or so as to whether or not this deal will go ahead.

There are a lot of mixed messages coming out of both camps – City and Arsenal – and the truth of the matter is rather difficult to unpick.  City, however, must realise that if they want the player they have to act now.  And even with the ragged state of our squad, I can’t justify turning down £20m for an asset we will lose for nothing at the end of the coming season.

I don’t think Nasri will play in Udine, especially with Wilshere and Song available.  I’m less convinced that the clubs will be able to agree on a deal before then – this might drag on until the very end of the window.

Further depatures

If he does go, Nasri won’t be the only one.  The club still anticipate the departures of Nicklas Bendtner and Manuel Almunia – the Spaniard isn’t even mentioned by Arsene Wenger when discussing his goalkeepers for next season, and has, for all intents and purposes, been ‘released’ from his contract.

Personally, I’m hoping that Bendtner can’t find a club and ends up staying – on current form, he is far more of a threat than Marouane Chamakh.

Signings

The precise sums we’re prepared to spend will probably depend on Wednesday night’s results, but it’s clear that some strengthening will have to happen between now and the end of the window – ideally before Sunday’s potentially morale-sapping clash with Manchester United.

All sorts of names are being tossed around, but there’s nothing tangible there.  Arsene told TF1 that he was “still involved in the French market”, which has fuelled speculation around Rennes and France holding midfielder Yann M’Vila.  His club, however, say they know nothing of any bid.

There are predictable links with Lille winger Eden Hazard, as well as that quartet of English-based centre-halves – Samba, Jagielka, Cahill and Dann.

I don’t think it’s at all unrealistic to hope for three signings between now and next Wednesday – especially if Nasri goes.  One must be a centre-back, another a central midfielder.  The third could be anything from a left-back to a centre-forward.

Whatever happens, I won’t know too much about it.  I’ll certainly find some foreign bar surrounded by moustachioed men to watch the Udinese game, and if I can find an internet cafe or WIFI connection to share my thoughts on it with you I will.

I return on Friday, when the landscape at Arsenal promises, for a variety of reasons, to be very different.

It is, after all, a big week.

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.