Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Panic After a Win

Forgive me being confused here, but since when did winning a UEFA Champions League match mean that a team was doomed to failure? The way the articles I've read sound, you would think that Arsenal lost 2-0 or worse to Udinese rather than gut out an admittedly ugly 1-0 victory with their three best players missing. I am of course open to reasonable criticism but this seems to be reaching the point of absurdity. I am aware that Arsenal hasn't won a single title in SIX YEARS and I'm aware that Arsene Wenger's player development strategy seems to have somehow disabled the part of his brain that sees talent in players over the age of 13, but the doom and gloom reporting that's coming out of the two Arsenal matches so far this year are just absurd. Let me break it down for everyone in a way that makes some sense:

Newcastle vs Arsenal: Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri were still embroiled in the uncertainty with their potential transfers, Jack Wilshere couldn't play due to injury, Theo Wolcott wasn't fit enough to start, and no players had been bought to replace any of the players in limbo because, well, they were in limbo. To summarize, Arsenal went to Newcastle without three of their four best players (four of their best five if you want to make the argument for Wolcott, though I wouldn't necessarily) and drew 0-0. Disappointing, but what did you really expect from a team that was missing all of that talent and had not yet found a way to replace it.

Arsenal vs Udinese: Nasri's future with Arsenal was still uncertain, Wilshere still couldn't play due to injury, Robin Van Persie couldn't play due to that ludicrous red card from the Barcelona match, Wenger was banned from the touchline for saying mean (read: true) things about said red card, and no players had been bought on the transfer market. To summarize again, Arsenal's three best players didn't play, the coach was banned from coaching, and Arsenal won the first leg of their UEFA Champions League series with Udinese, the toughest opponent they could have drawn in their situation.

Look, I want Arsenal to score 15 goals per game as much as the next guy. I want Aaron Ramsey to immediately become an international superstar. I want Alex Song to stop stomping on people and play good, physical defense that doesn't lead to stupid fouls (perhaps this last wish is more reasonable). But that's not going to happen, at least not in the first two weeks of a brand new season after Arsenal lost their midfield maestro and their most explosive offensive player (most likely). It's not feasible. So please stop writing all of these articles about how Arsenal is on the fast track to imploding like the rest of London (too soon?) and give some time for things to fall into place. Wilshere will be back soon. Players will get match fit and more familiar with each other. The transfer market is open for another two weeks and players will be bought (please god Arsene, prove me right on this). Five days into the season isn't the time for this nonsense.

As for today's match, the criticism isn't incorrect, it's just overblown. Arsenal did look suspect defensively at times, not being able to match the pace that Udinese was bringing. That said, Thomas Vermaelen made several fantastic plays to save quality chances on goal and Bacary Sagna was dynamite on the right side as usual. Let me take this chance to underscore the importance of Vermaelen to this defense again: Arsenal's defense can actually be good with Vermaelen in the back. Arsenal will never be a lock down, defensive team (no matter what stupidity you read about how posting two clean sheets so far proves that's how they're going to play this year), not with their gameplan and aggressive tendencies. But they can still be a solid defensive team if Vermaelen is healthy and his partner in crime isn't making stupid runs halfway up the field, losing the ball, and then picking up silly yellow cards (you know who you are Laurent Koscielny). Take this opportunity to pick up one of the five center backs that you're linked to and put together a truly beastly pair that might save games rather than put us all on heart attack watch. While you're at it, buy a left back because today did some damage to that position.

Arsenal also let Udinese take control of the game too much. Aside from the goal in the first half, it was fairly sloppy with lots of turnovers by each side and some chances, but no sustained dominant team. Udinese was that team in the second half, running hard at Arsenal and keeping possession while exploiting the openings they saw. That did change around the 75th minute or so, when Udinese started to slow and look tired. Then Arsenal pressed the play more, dominated possession, and had excellent chances like the Gervinho/Wolcott combination in stoppage time. They took Udinese's best punch and then came back at them. That being said, it would have been nice if they hadn't been ducking that punch so frantically, or if they landed a punch of their own when Udinese overexposed itself.

The bottom line is that this wasn't a pretty game. Arsenal still does not have the midfield flow they need to (with Fabregas gone and Wilshere out, that's just shocking), they still haven't developed that killer instinct, and they need to get tighter defensively. But it's early. I know that's not what people want to hear when their team could be bounced from the Champions League next week, but it's the truth. This team will need some time to find their stars and truly come together. I hope it happens tomorrow, but that is just not the case. In the meantime, let's look for some bright spots (like the goalkeeping of Wojciech Szczesny) and build upon them instead of tearing down the foundation before it has a chance to set. As always, Go Gunners.

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