Newcastle 0 Arsenal 0
Gervinho sent off 76
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It may be a new season, but Arsenal‘s goalless draw at Newcastle brought with it many echoes of the last campaign as history repeated itself in too many negative ways to comfort fans hoping that Arsène Wenger‘s side will turn over a new leaf in this campaign.
Koscielny's first half effort was as close as Arsenal came to breaking the deadlock at St James' Park (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
Echoes of the past
On the opening weekend of last season a patchwork Arsenal side missing several starters after a gruelling World Cup summer travelled north to play Liverpool, and scraped a draw after an insipid performance in which debutant Laurent Koscielny was sent off. Yesterday a patchwork Arsenal side missing several key starters after a gruelling summer of increasingly bitter transfer negotiations travelled north to play Newcastle, and scraped a draw after an insipid performance in which debutant Gervinho was sent off.
Yet again, Barton found himself at the centre of the game's two most controversial incidents
Just as in the equivalent game last season – the remarkable 4-4 draw in which the home side recovered from a four-goal deficit in the final quarter of the game (match report: Four-Toon favours the brave) – the game hinged on incidents involving the controversy magnet that is Joey Barton. In the previous game, Barton had provoked a reaction from Abou Diaby which saw the Frenchman sent off and ignited Newcastle’s comeback. Here Barton provoked a slap from Gervinho which resulted in the Ivorian seeing red.
And, just as they had in the concluding game of last season at Fulham, Arsenal’s normally faithful travelling support ended the game with a chorus of “Spend some f***ing money!” That was a clear reference to the need to strengthen the squad given the impending departures of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, which are expected to raise in the region of £60m. With Gaël Clichy already gone, Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboué nearing the exit door, and question marks hanging over the future of a number of others, to say it has been an unsettling summer at the Emirates would be an understatement.
As an indication of how much things have changed in the last 12 months, it’s worth comparing the starting line-up at St James’ Park to the one which opened last season at Anfield. Yesterday’s XI was:
Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs
Song – Rosický
Gervinho – Ramsey – Arshavin
Only four of these – Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Andrey Arshavin – also started at Anfield a year ago, an indication of Arsenal’s transitional nature right now.
Barton takes centre stage as both teams fluff their lines
Arsenal had the better of a sterile first half in which they dominated possession without creating much. In 45 minutes, only an early Tomáš Rosický shot, a Koscielny effort which was bundled off the line and a sweet sand-wedge of a through ball from Arshavin which Robin van Persie could not quite bring down did anything to quicken the pulse. Gervinho regularly popped up on both flanks to trouble both Newcastle full backs, Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor, with his pacy, direct style. And Rosický, in a deeper central role, looked incisive and always keen to move the ball forward quickly. But too often the final ball was lacking as the visitors struggled to shake off the early season cobwebs against opponents who offered little attacking threat themselves. In truth, although it was mostly one-way traffic and much of Arsenal’s play was neat and tidy enough, it was pretty stultifying fare.
Song's stamp on Barton escaped on-field punishment, but he is likely to be penalised retrospectively (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
The second period, however, was even less inspiring, as both sides ran out of ideas and puff. Van Persie whipped a wicked free kick a fraction over and substitute Theo Walcott poked a shot straight at Tim Krul, but the half was defined by two incidents in which Barton, inevitably, was a central protagonist.
On the hour Alex Song, who had already been booked, reacted to a perceived bad tackle from Barton by slyly stamping on him. None of the officials saw it, but replays suggested it was deliberate and a retrospective three-match ban is the most likely outcome. If applied, Song would miss the matches against Liverpool, Manchester United and Swansea.
A quarter of an hour later, Gervinho charged into the box and tumbled after a challenge with Cheik Tiote. Replays suggested the Ivorian might have been brushed by Tiote but, with the ball still in play, Barton grabbed him and roughly hauled him back to his feet, no doubt accompanied by some choice words in his ear. As players from both sides rushed in to separate them, Gervinho caught Barton with the slightest of slaps, which sent the Newcastle player collapsing to the ground clutching his face. Barton later admitted on Twitter that “I went down easy, no doubt.”
Gervinho spoilt a promising debut with the slap which saw him red-carded (image courtesy of arsenal.com)
Steven Taylor indicated to referee Peter Walton that an elbow had been used – remarkable given that the slap had happened directly behind Taylor’s head and therefore out of his line of sight. (Taylor later admitted that he had seen nothing.) Nonetheless, I suspect Walton had already seen enough to make up his own mind and – correctly – sent Gervinho off for violent conduct, meaning a three-match ban. Whether he should have issued more than a yellow to Barton is debatable, and arguably he should also have awarded a penalty for Barton physically handling an opponent while the ball was still live. Suffice to say that neither Barton nor Taylor enhanced their reputations here. (Barton’s history is well known, but Taylor also has ‘previous’, having famously handled a ball on the goalline against Aston Villa in 2007 and then collapsed theatrically in a failed attempt to avoid punishment.)
Thereafter, Arsenal were content to keep things tight at the back and escape with a point. Despite their man advantage, Newcastle created nothing of note in the final 15 minutes. A draw was the most either side deserved. Arsenal need more sharpness and, at the very least, Jack Wilshere‘s incision. Newcastle, aside from set-pieces and their impressive debutant Yohan Cabaye, need more quality all across their front line.
Post-match reaction and analysis
After the game, Arsène Wenger commented on Gervinho’s sending off:
I think I saw two yellows or two reds but not one yellow and one red. I don’t know [if it was a penalty]. I wasn’t close enough to see it so we will have to watch it again.
Overall, he admitted his side had lacked sharpness in the final third of the pitch, but was pleased with a much-maligned defence which barely gave the home side a sniff at goal:
I thought we had a solid performance and were in control. They organised not to concede goals, defended well and it was very difficult for us because we played a team who was highly focused to defend. The regret is that we missed something in the final third and in the speed of our passing. But overall we had a good performance. I can’t remember giving Newcastle a chance at goal and, away from home, you have to give credit to our team for that.
When asked about potential transfers in and out, he refused to give anything away:
I am not against spending money if the players we buy can improve our squad. We have a big squad and if some players leave we will try to bring players in. We request top quality and we are not scared to spend money.
We are, on both fronts [regarding the Fàbregas and Nasri transfers], in no-man’s land. At the moment, they are players of Arsenal Football Club.
It is all too easy to dwell on the negatives from this performance. Arsenal struggled to break down a resolute Newcastle defence and certainly missed the guile of Wilshere and Fàbregas. Although Gervinho, Rosický and Arshavin were enterprising enough, they never quite unlocked the home side’s defence, as a result of which Robin van Persie had one of his quieter games. And, not for the first time, Arsenal players – on this occasion Song and Gervinho – allowed themselves to be wound up by an opponent far too easily. It is a weakness that other teams will not fail to exploit, and to exhibit such obvious petulance only creates a rod for the team’s back in future games. In the shorter term, both are likely to miss the key games against Liverpool and United, although at least they will be available for the critical Champions League qualifier against Udinese.
No doubt the internet forums and phone-in shows will now be inundated with disgruntled Arsenal fans in a heightened state of hysteria. They would do well to remember that last season’s opening performance at Liverpool was even worse than this one, but that the team did manage to turn things around. There are still 37 games remaining, and a significant transfer kitty to be utilised.
Szczęsny looked decisive and commanding on high balls (image courtesy of arsenal.,com)
The positives should not be ignored either. Although it comes with the caveat that they will face tougher tests than this, the defence was rock solid. Wojciech Szczęsny dealt positively with crosses and barely had a save to make in the entire game, while Vermaelen and Koscielny were solid in the tackle and shackled Newcastle’s attackers well.
Going forward, Gervinho’s directness and pace turned defenders regularly, a quality too often lacking in Arsenal’s play in recent years, although his final delivery was a little off. Aaron Ramsey and Arshavin were eager forward runners, while Song was disciplined enough to hold station in front of the back four for the most part. And it was gratifying to see Rosický revelling in the central role in which he featured during pre-season. For all his injury and goalscoring woes, he remains a classy player whose first instinct is always to pass or run forward. A target of many fans’ frustrations last season, he could be an important contributor this season, lending an experienced head to a young midfield.
Arsenal now face a critical fortnight. The Champions League qualifier against Udinese – the first leg of which is on Tuesday – is intertwined with key league fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United. And Wenger will look to bolster his squad with the expected £60m windfall from the sales of Fàbregas and Nasri, with the added difficulty that any prospective sellers will be fully aware that Arsenal have money to spend and a desperate need for reinforcements. Now is not the time for panic. We will not really know Arsenal’s competitive health until the end of the month, but it will make for an agonising period for fans of the club.