Arsenal travel to Tyneside looking for three points to put a happier slant on the inconsistent and disappointing start to the season. They do so by looking to the past; it’s been a decade since Arsenal lost this fixture, despite have a damned good go at it by dropping a four-goal lead in 2011. Curiously enough, this morning’s playlist is Beatiful Stranger (Redux), the expanded reissue of the original, all of which can be found on Dad’s Jukebox, in the right sidebar or in the archives.
A testing week draws to a close for Arsène, finding out that the last word in an argument always goes to the pundit with the gauntlet well and truly laid down by Mr Neville,
If this is my Alan Hansen moment then nobody will be more pleased than me. I would be delighted to see Arsenal disprove my criticisms of their playing style by winning the Premier League. But to do so they will have to defy history. Arsenal are a great football club with an illustrious history. Roll your eye down the list of league champions, though, and you see, in every instance, ingredients that are Arsenal are running low on.
The Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 80s; all the Manchester United sides of the 1990s and 2000s, the Arsenal XI of Petit and Vieira and Jose Mourinho’s first Chelsea team of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele. The Manchester City of Kompany, De Jong, Yaya Toure. You see power, character and a winning urge.
There are no exceptions to this rule. I could even go back to the good Everton teams of the mid-1980s to illustrate the point that championships are not won by a front six who are blessed with great technical skill but lack a counter-balance of big personalities, big characters, power and pace.
Today is the first step in answering that criticism. Arsène, the coaching staff and players are all staring down the barrels of a great “I told you so” the minute the title becomes impossible, followed by a media inquisition which will have Tomás de Torquemada glowing with approval. Defiance in the face of the media comes at a price and this may well be a far heavier millstone for Wenger to carry than a trophyless decade. It’s a spat that he can only win by delivering the title although the Champions League will suffice as a viable alternative. Indignation is all well and good but in this case, his opponent – the media generally – has a vindictiveness where only absolutes count.
The timing of it and this afternoon’s opponents could hardly be worse. Newcastle; the barcodes. Petr Cech is the only shopping Arsène has done this summer and the question marks remain over his forward line. Olivier Giroud, in football terms, has scored once since Noah built the Ark whilst Theo Walcott’s promise as a central striker has yet to be given an opportunity to flourish. It is a tricky decision for Wenger; this is a fixture in which Giroud has enjoyed good returns previously, even in a misfiring team. Whether he retains faith in Monday’s XI is the key; the attack created but drew a blank and Arsenal cannot afford dropped points today. No matter what anyone says, anything other than victory at St James Park is a bad result.
Incredibly, Arsène is trying to blame the stuttering start to the season on players returning late to the fold,
I think we are ready to play 90 minutes but maybe it’s normal as well that after two or three games, you are not completely at 100 per cent. That comes slowly. We have started late and as well some players, like Alexis, have come in on August 3 and are not completely there.
That is as baffling a statement as Cantona wittering on about seagulls. How can a manager claim his players “started late” when there hasn’t been an international tournament for all bar two of them? It’s a staggering admission, one that raises serious questions over his pre-season preparations; why weren’t the majority of the squad at 100%? This was no different to other years so why weren’t the players ready? It’s been a bad week for Wenger on and off the pitch.
Time to put at least one of them right. With Per Mertesacker ruled out and Laurent Koscielny doubtful, Wenger has to rely on Gabriel and Chambers once again. The horrors of the first half behind them, the partnership got to work in the second against Liverpool. Chambers was rightly criticised for his opening forty-five minutes but it was a more an issue with his distribution, sloppily ceding possession in dangerous places.
That improved and with his confidence growing, his reading of the game grew. It helped that the rest of the team weren’t as timid and worked harder in a dominant second half performance. Arsenal will need that level to be reached from kick-off as a baying local crowd can inspire Newcastle as we saw last season as they sought to retrieve the two-goal deficit; a mix of assured and desperate defending saw three points return south on that occasion. The same outcome is needed today and with the international break awaiting, performance is not so important.
Newcastle emerged with a point from last weekend’s trip to Old Trafford and I am sure that will imbue some confidence but let’s not forget how poor United are. Even so, there was a defensive strength that today’s hosts will draw on and having taken just one point from their opening two games, that followed by a comfortable League Cup win, has added some pep to their step.
And the smothering defensive tactic is a reason I would start Walcott up front. As visitors, Arsenal expect to face an aggressive start to the match but that will change if the defence faces a player who is more than capable of exploiting a high line. Will his pace force them to defend deeper than they may have prepared for in the belief Giroud will start? I am not sure Arsène cares much for that; as Thierry Henry has said this morning, Wenger’s belief in the squad is total and his faith in Giroud almost unshakeable.
For that reason alone, I think the only change to Monday will be if Koscielny comes back, a huge risk given the manager’s comments earlier in the week. Even so, it’s still a game Arsenal can, should and must, win. Anything less may see a seven-point gap at the top, with City fast approaching the point where, from Arsenal’s point of view, they will be uncatchable. Time to pick up Neville’s gauntlet, gentlemen.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.