Right, let us start with the positives. A win! And a clean sheet!
The goal came in the 4th minute, Aaron Ramsey got free down the right, his cross had quality and precision and Theo’s finish at the near post was excellent. Just the start we needed to settle everyone down. The team, the fans, Arsene up in the director’s box who spent a lot of time sending messages in electronic bottles to Pat Rice on the touchline, everyone.
Udinese were certainly a threat though. What was noticeable was how quickly they turned defence into attack. At one stage Song was dispossessed deep inside their box, within 10 seconds Vermaelen had to stretch out a leg to prevent a one on one situation inside ours.
Antonio di Natale hit the bar with a free kick that seemed to bamboozle SZCZ and from an Arsenal corner Udinese broke and found themselves one on one with our keeper. Thankfully, Szczesny made a fantastic save, then Song got back to make a great block from the follow up, so there were definite warning signs there.
The start of the second half saw Johan Djourou replace Kieran Gibbs who, unsurprisingly, had picked up a hamstring injury. Counting on the young Englishman was always going to be a risk and just 9 minutes later Djourou did the same thing and was replaced by Jenkinson.
I thought we struggled badly in the second half, we lacked cohesion, there was nobody in midfield to control the game for us, and up front we needed more of an outlet from Chamakh whose form isn’t so much in the toilet as halfway down the u-bend and heading out for sea. Frimpong came on for Rosicky and added some energy to things but it’s a sign of his inexperience that the first two incidents he was involved in gave free kicks to Udinese. One of them in a very dangerous position and di Natale forced a good save from Szczesny.
Theo had our best chance of the half, put through by Ramsey, but he shanked his attempted curler. Late on we might have doubled the lead, again through Theo. Gervinho managed to add a final ball to his dribble, Walcott hit it first time from close range but Handanovic pulled off a really great save to prevent it being 2-0.
Overall, can’t argue with the result. A win and that all important clean sheet. With the players we had missing, with the gaps we have in our squad, and with the quality of the opposition, there was no way we were going to put this tie to bed in the first leg. It was crucial we kept them out, we did that and we go to Italy in decent shape in my opinion, especially as we have a bit of time to sort some things out. More on that anon.
There was no post-game reaction from Arsene who refused to take part in the press conference. There’s some suggestion he was involved in a dispute with UEFA over communication between him and the bench during the game. The risible Geoff Shreeves was giving updates on Sky like some kind of snivelling tell-tale. I’ve rarely heard more pathetic coverage of anything during a football match. I fervently hope that somebody, some time, will simply punch him in the snout during a post-game interview.
Still, it was obvious there was something going on. Pat Rice might have stiff neck this morning from looking up at the director’s box but apparently Arsenal had cleared the channels of communication with UEFA beforehand, before they decided to get the hump with it. Whatever the nuts and bolts of it, it’s all a bit of a storm in a teacup. Much as Sky would like you to believe Wenger was some arch-criminal, it’s fuck all about fuck all, really.
Now, it’s impossible to look at last night and not discuss the state of our team/squad. It is frighteningly thin at the moment, in terms of experience and quality and fitness. Yesterday, the club announced the departures of Emmanuel Eboue and Carlos Vela to Galatasaray and Real Sociedad respectively. To be fair to the manager many people wanted him to get rid of players like Eboue, Vela, Denilson and even Clichy, but I think there was an expectation that there would be replacements.
Cesc is gone, Nasri looks like he’s going (even if the Facebook comments attributed to him yesterday seemingly were false – despite the Arsenal press office telling journalists they were kosher), Bendtner could be off to PSG, both left backs at the club are currently injured, Djourou is injured, Wilshere is injured and still in a protective boot/cast, Gervinho is now into a 3 game domestic ban and I expect Alex Song to join him. If you looked at the Arsenal XI that finished last night’s game, it’s one that you’d associate more with a Carling Cup game than a crucial Champions League qualifier.
It is staggering to me that in a month as important as this our squad is in such poor shape. We know that certain players are extremely injury prone, Gibbs for example, so counting on him to be fit is a gamble. It’s a gamble that lasted 135 minutes of the new season. Djourou’s injury means we’re heading back into Squillaci territory if anything happens to Vermaelen or Koscielny (who, it has to be said, look to be forming a good partnership).
Our midfield is seriously lacking if craft and guile, without van Persie we look toothless in the central striking position, and all the while Arsene has at least £50m (with more to come when we sell Nasri) burning a hole in his pocket. I fully accept that transfers are difficult things, that it’s not like going to a supermarket blah blah blah, but when you hear Arsene talk on Sky about how he’s not afraid to spend money, he just doesn’t want to spend it on average players, it’s hard not think unsavoury thoughts. I mean, I get what he’s saying, and maybe it’s a reflection of the market at the moment, but he spent money on Sylvester, didn’t he?!
And with absolutely no disrespect to the youngsters we have brought in, and the likes of Frimpong who is being blooded at the moment, is it realistic to expect them to be anything other than average? They are being asked to come into a team like Arsenal, where the standards have been set so high, and perform to that level with barely a first team game between them. Look at Frimpong, for example, sent on last night, to make his Champions League debut in a game of such importance, after a grand total of 6 minutes of first team football in his career!
In a way it’s unfair on these young players. There’s throwing them in at the deep end and throwing them in a deep end. I hope that people are aware of how difficult it is for these guys and show them the patience they need. I fear that frustration is so high at the moment this won’t be the case and the fallout from that, and the damage to their confidence, will rest entirely on the shoulders of the manager. He’s asking for too much, too soon, in my opinion.
You cannot let a player of Cesc’s quality go and not replace him. The same with Nasri. He may not be anyone’s favourite right now but you can’t overlook the fact the team, and the squad, will be weaker without him. It might well be a case the departures this week are Arsenal clearing the decks for new arrivals. Remember the 25 man rule, remember the number of players who have to be ‘home grown’, and if we’re making space in the squad for the potential new recruits, then that’s great stuff, but we need those new recruits as quickly as possible.
There’s no scope for playing the market, no time for brinkmanship, August is too important to haggle over price too much. With the money he has available Arsene could bring in three or four experienced players, of good quality, who would add something straight away to the Arsenal team. They would add depth to the squad, allow the youngsters to develop without so much pressure, and provide experience and knowledge to the lads who barely have double-figures in first team football between them.
We got a good result last night, and a point at Newcastle was ok under the circumstances, but in both games Arsenal struggled in terms of performance. That is entirely down to the lack of quality in the squad and it has to be addressed. Urgently. The money we have is no good in our bank account, it must be invested in the squad. Failure to do so, and failure which costs us points, well, I shudder to think at the reaction.
As I said, I can only assume the players going out are making room for players coming in. It’s the only way I can make sense of what’s happening at the moment. If Arsene can’t see that this is the weakest squad he’s had, by some distance, since taking over in 1996, then I’d be very, very worried indeed. T-minus 14 days for the transfer window, but there’s only 4 to Liverpool on Saturday. They need to get their arses in gear.
Finally, Robin van Persie has been appointed the new captain of the club, with Thomas Vermaelen ‘helping’ him. A good decision for me, even if Robin’s contract situation is a touch precarious at the moment. I think both of them have that bit of spike to their character that we need. Think of Robin taking Diaby to task at Blackpool last season, he won’t put up with any slacking.
Right, that’ll have to do. I wonder who we’ll get rid of today.