August 16, 2010 10 Comments
Ngog 46; Reina (og) 90
It is easy to read too much into a single game, but on the basis of this performance Arsenal still have a lot of work to do to disprove the doubts hanging over their Premier League title credentials, while Liverpool will take some encouragement from a battling performance in which they led for almost the entire second half despite seeing debutant Joe Cole sent off on the stroke of half-time.
Three Arsenal players made their first Premier League start at Anfield yesterday: midfielder Jack Wilshere and new signings striker Marouane Chamakh and centre-back Laurent Koscielny. Each had an eventful game, with Koscielny directly engaged in both sendings off, and the others involved in the two goals.
At the end of a first period of few chances which had been largely dominated by the visitors, Cole leapt in from behind on Koscielny and immediately received a straight red card from referee Martin Atkinson. Replays suggested the tackle carried little malice, but was technically a red card offence according to the rules of the game. However, seven times out of ten, the tackler would probably have only been cautioned. Nonetheless, coming just five weeks after Holland attempted to kick Spain into submission in the World Cup final, if this signals a clampdown by officials on overtly physical intimidation, it is a not unwelcome move.
Pundits and fans alike immediately sprang forth with the now standard “he’s not that type of player” defence, but Cole later received backing from the most unlikely of sources, as Arsène Wenger, who has in the past been quick to criticise opposing players for dangerous tackles, said:
He is not one I would like to record as a guy who tries to hurt people. That is not his style. He was maybe a bit rushy into his tackle and he kicked him [Koscielny] accidentally because he had a big mark on his shin.
The sending-off served only to galvanise Liverpool, and less than a minute after the restart Javier Maschearno seized on Wilshere’s mis-control to feed David Ngog, who blasted a fierce shot to beat Manuel Almunia – who perhaps could have done better – at his near post.
The home side understandably chose to defend deep for most of the rest of the game. Arsenal continued to enjoy considerable possession in the Liverpool half, but without creating many clear-cut chances. Samir Nasri, occupying the Fabregas role, gave a good performance in midfield. Wilshere, making his first Premier League start four days after his first England appearance (go figure), looked like a man beyond his tender 18 years in possession but appeared more of an under-sized boy in tending to his defensive duties. Andrey Arshavin looked like a pale, disinterested shadow of the man who had scored five goals on his previous two visits two Anfield.
Theo Walcott and Tomáš Rosický, on as substitutes for the last half-hour, produced Arsenal’s only real efforts of note in the first 44 minutes of the second half, the latter a stinging effort that a diving Reina did brilliantly to turn over, but the Liverpool keeper was largely untroubled until the final 30 seconds of normal time. Then Rosický whipped in a cross which Chamakh, in an otherwise quiet debut, turned onto a post. As Reina scrambled back after the ball, he succeeded only in bundling it over the line to give Arsenal a share of the points. Howler or just plain bad luck? You decide.
There was just enough time for the otherwise impressive Koscielny to see double yellow – the first justified, the second for a close-range handball lookied harsh – and for Almunia to parry a Steven Gerrard free kick, but on the balance of play a draw was probably about right, and I suspect both Wenger and Roy Hodgson will be satisfied rather than pleased with the result.
Having started with the caveat that it is easy to read too much into a single game, what did we learn about Arsenal yesterday that we didn’t already know?
We saw that Manuel Almunia can no longer be relied upon as a number one goalkeeper. But that is not news.
Although Ngog’s goal was fiercely hit, Almunia should be disappointed not to have beaten it away. More concerning was the way he, when tested from a corner for the first time, charged unobstructed from his line only to flap haplessly and miss his punch by at least a yard – the Almunia of two seasons ago would have dealt with it comfortably. Fulham‘s Mark Schwarzer is desperate to move, and rumours were circulating last night about a possible eleventh-hour deal for Shay Given. Either way, Almunia’s days as a starter appear numbered.
We saw that Arsenal are both frail and lacking in depth defensively. But that is not news.
Without the injured Alex Song, Arsenal lacked a defensive screen in front of the back four, and looked vulnerable against both counter-attacks and at set-pieces. The slight Wilshere struggled to compete physically, and Abou Diaby continues to frustrate with his lackadaisical approach to tracking back. Now, with Johan Djourou out with a hamstring injury and Koscielny suspended, Wenger may be forced to give a debut to 20-year old Norwegian Havard Nordtveit against Blackpool next weekend. With Gallas, Silvestre, Campbell and Senderos all departing in the off-season, Arsenal’s need for central defensive cover is more acute than ever. A signing before the transfer window closes remains of the highest priority.
We saw that, without Cesc Fabregas (who did not travel due to illness, we’re told), Arsenal lacked both leadership and penetration in the final third against a massed, determined defence. But that is not news either.
The absence of Robin van Persie for all but the final 14 minutes did not help either but, Nasri aside, Arsenal lacked creative spark. Wilshire will continue to develop with experience, but is not quite ready for the biggest stages yet. And the greatest disappointment of all is Arshavin, who appeared to withdraw into his own little world, offering neither leadership nor effort to support his younger teammates.
However, we saw that Arsenal never, ever give up. But we knew that already too.
Even when playing poorly, the side had an encouraging habit of scoring late equalisers or winners which kept them in the title race longer than they had any reasonable right to last season, most notably snatching late winners at Stoke and Hull. Of course, the flip-side of the coin is that the team digs itself into too many holes in the first place, but it does at least say something about the side’s fitness and self-belief. It would be nice to be 3-0 up and cruising in more games, though.
There is nothing here Arsenal fans did not already know. Unfortunately, it is also clear Arsenal are starting the 2010/11 campaign with many of last season’s problems still unaddressed, or at the very least unsolved.
Overall, a point was not a bad result, particularly given our injury problems. We live to fight another day. And, having opened the season with a stern test, Arsenal now face a run of extremely winnable games over the next few weeks – Blackpool, Bolton and West Brom at home; Blackburn and Sunderland away – which may yet provide the platform for a credible title challenge ahead of our next big head-to-head, a visit to Stanford Bridge in early October. But, even allowing for the fact this was the first game of the season with an under-strength side, there is clearly some work to be done.
Hold on tight, Gooners, it’s going to be one of those seasons.