Saturday, August 13, 2011

Out With the Old, In With... Who?

Perhaps it is a cliched and predictable way to start a season-long blog, but it was very hard to watch the Newcastle vs Arsenal match without wondering how this year's team would compare to last year's team after losing such key members as Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri (for this match at least, most likely for much more), as well as the sneaky important Gael Clichy. Perhaps this isn't a completely fair comparison as today's squad was also missing new midfield superstar (hopefully) Jack Wilshere and had Theo Wolcott available but not 100% match fit. Fairness aside however, these are the things that you must be willing to judge: is this Arsenal team good enough to challenge for the title, or at least for Champions League play? I'm unhappy to report that my knee-jerk reaction to this game reminded me of how my roommate felt at various points throughout last season. He is a Liverpool fan.

Gervinho was the "big" move for Arsenal in the off-season and he is supposed to be able to provide some of the pace and playmaking ability on the wing in the 4-5-1 that Arsenal will so desperately need, especially with Nasri gone. The reviews for him in this game were decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he has great pace and is entirely unafraid to run at defenders, which is a quality I really like. Several times in the game he made excellent runs into the box from the left or right side and looked to really threaten the back line or keeper for Newcastle. The other shoe seems to have consistently dropped between Gervinho's own feet however, as he seemed physically and mentally incapable of putting shots on goal or providing respectable service to another player in the attack. In my notes from this match, I counted seven(!) times I thought it important enough to furiously type that Gervinho was bungling an attempt. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this was a theme which ran throughout. He has fantastic pace and puts himself in great spots, but he simply cannot get the ball out from between his feet and find the open man on the break. He's like that kid you get frustrated playing with because no matter what you do or what run you make, you know that the ball will end up five feet behind you, duffed into the keeper's hands, or being taken back in the other direction by the opposing team. Now I'm certainly not giving up on him for the season or anything ludicrous like that. He showed flashes today and he needs to get on the same page with his teammates. That will come with time and from game situations, although he will need to wait a little to get into those game situations, as I will discuss later.

The replacement for Clichy, Kieran Gibbs, was even more disappointing in my mind. To be fair, I never found him to be at risk defensively (though Newcastle never really threaten up his side). He might have been beaten on a pass or two, but he never looked out of place or lost. Going forward though was a whole different story. I'm used to seeing Clichy make these great runs down the left flank with speed, pick out a target, and rip a cross that puts the entire defense under pressure. Or, he would smartly recognize that nothing is there, pull the ball back and begin working it around. I saw absolutely none of that aptitude from Gibbs today. He routinely would get down the side in decent position and then unleash a ball that wouldn't end up anywhere near something resembling a target in the middle. There was one sequence in the 82nd minute where Wolcott floated a nice ball to the back post and it was all Gibbs could do to get on the end of it and lightly float it to the patiently waiting Newcastle keeper. The worrisome part of this is, I don't know if he's going to get better. With Gervinho, it was his first EPL match with his new teammates. He wasn't aware of how all of them were going to make runs, wasn't sure where he should set himself up, things like that. With Gibbs, he was giving poor service to targets in the 18 from the wing he plays on all the time. That's something he's been doing for the last 15 years and he seemed nowhere near the mark. Again, I'm not going to give up on a player after one game, especially on a 21 year-old with some obviously good instincts on how to get forward. But after watching something like that, you ask yourself if Arsene Wenger really thinks Gibbs can step up to fill the role of Clichy, or if he thinks Gibbs is just good enough to justify not spending any money.

The unenviable task of replacing Fabregas fell, in this match, to Aaron Ramsey. Now, this is obviously an unfair comparison. Not just because Fabregas sees the field like few players in the world, but because I don't think this is a position that Ramsey is best suited to. Ramsey also has excellent vision, but he's better pushed up high rather than in a "pulling the strings" kind of role. To his credit, Ramsey had a nice game and made some nice passes, but he's obviously not a long-term solution. Thankfully he won't have to be as Wilshere will come back and assume that role and Ramsey can push forward more where we'll be happier to see him play. Even though I know this, I still can't help but think that this is the downside of the "Cesc is unhappy, let him play somewhere else and we'll find a fill-in" argument. I don't necessarily disagree with that. If Nasri and Fabregas are going to be distractions to the team if they stay, I understand the good in getting a lot of money out of them that can be reinvested. But especially in the case of Cesc, he's still Cesc Fabregas. That's the guy you want to leave? That's the guy you're hoping hurries up and gets out of town? Arsenal was a completely different team last year when he was on the bench and they're a completely different team this year when he's on his way out the door. Let's hope that Wilshere's return (or some players bought with the proceeds of the Fabregas and Nasri sales) can reassure us a bit.

On the brighter side of things, the defense and goal-keeping looked sensational today. A good amount of that is due to a Newcastle side that didn't have a ton of pace up front and wasn't terribly creative in their attacks. That can't be said enough. But Wojciech Sczcesny looked confident and authoritative in the back, coming off his line several times to make well timed punches and once coming out to head a dangerous pass outside the 18 away. My worry is that he takes this confidence and becomes reckless. It's something we've seen from him in the past. If he can walk that line, though, he'll have a great season. Staying pat at keeper was something I had no problem with and today Sczcesny showed why he deserves that consideration. The central defense was also good, and it is just so nice to have Thomas Vermaelen back on the squad. He was always calm and composed today, never looked out of sorts and also never had to do anything truly spectacular. Accompanying him was excellent play out of Laurent Koscielny, which is both surprising and expected. Yesterday I typed that Arsenal couldn't challenge for the championship if Koscielny was their second center back. I stand by that comment due to the depth of talent on the transfer market at center back since Arsenal could so obviously upgrade, but Koscielny has me second guessing myself a bit. If he can play as solid as he did today and not make mistakes, then maybe Arsenal can do better than I thought. This is somewhat of a moot point though because Arsenal needs to get another center back to safeguard against injury. If Koscielny goes down, Johan Djourou can come in and not much will be lost. If Vermaelen goes out however... that's something I don't even want to think about.

I've said enough for now, but I want to speak a little to Joey Barton before I go. Joey, you make it so hard for me to stand up for you. When you were taking heat from every angle for lambasting Newcastle through Twitter, I stood up for you because it's incredibly frustrating to see teams sell off their best players and do nothing to improve the squad with those proceeds. There are fans from many American cities that can relate to this and I thought that you having the balls to call them out on it was fine in my book. But then we get into this game and I'm at least ok with you until you fall off a cliff. Being irate over Alex Song stomping on your calf? Completely agree, you could have punched him in the face and I wouldn't have cared (foreshadowing!!). Hauling Gervinho up off the ground because you think he took a dive in the box? You're losing me a little, but you're a hard-nosed player so I understand that you hate divers who are trying to draw cards. Going down like a sack of shit after Gervinho's hand happened to graze the side of your face? We're done here. If you want to yank someone to their feet by their collar for going down easy, how on earth do you justify crumpling to the ground from a slap that would have made Justin Bieber proud? You are at odds with yourself sir, and I'm having trouble keeping you in the good book. And Gervinho... you're just dumb for doing that. You're right to complain that you got sent off and he didn't but come on, you slapped a grown man on national television. Be glad he gave you a red card instead of taking away your man card.

That's all for now I think. I'll have some reaction to the Fabregas and Nasri sales when/if they happen, so check back for that. If you have any suggestions about the blog, be it writing style, layout, anything at all, I'd love to hear them. One last thing: if you find me online to talk to me about something I wrote here, you will be ignored. Use the comments section, for the love of god. If it's good enough to talk to me about, then talk to me through here so that others can join in. Until next time, Go Gunners.

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