Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Post-Cesc Era Begins: Arsenal 1-0 Udinese

A good result, considering the team Arsenal fielded. The season is only beginning, but the squad is already stretched almost to breaking point.

Two clean sheets from two games may suggest signs of a new defensive solidity, but scorelines can be misleading. Arsenal's high line was broken with disturbing ease at times. This happened as much through unforgivable sloppiness from those in red as it did from Udinese's creative prowess.

That said, the Italians remain a very decent side, despite some high profile departures in the summer. The Italian season has not yet started, but they still looked the more coherent outfit.

Arsenal's nerves were, of course, not helped by successive injuries to Gibbs and his replacement Djourou, leaving Karl Jenkinson to enter the fray second half. Yet another injury to Gibbs; the fact that Arsenal need a new left back is blindingly obvious to all but Arsene Wenger.

The early goal was pleasingly direct and well-taken by Walcott. Sagna's ball over the top was clever, Ramsey's run and perfect cross provided a snapshot of the kind of cutting edge he is capable of providing, and the winger's confident finish was another reminder that he would be more comfortable up front than falling over himself on the wing.

After that, a clean sheet was paramount. That Arsenal kept Udinese out was largely down to Szczesny, who had a very solid game. But the tie remains very much alive. Di Natale was unlucky on occasion- his free kick rattled the bar and he was also denied by an excellent Djourou block- and one feels he will fancy his chances against the Arsenal rearguard next week.

Marouane Chamakh's wretched display provides yet more cause for worry. The hope at the start of this summer was that Wenger and Gazidis, having watched on in horror as the team collapsed last spring, had a concrete plan as to how to get the Gunners back on track this season. All the evidence suggests that there is no real plan at all, or that Wenger's plan is a very risky one, perhaps one only he understands.

With Gervinho apparently earmarked for a role as a wide forward, and Bendtner apparently on his way out, Chamakh is the squad's only obvious understudy for the notoriously brittle Van Persie.

But Chamakh is suffering from a clear, extended crisis of confidence. It is easy to forget how impressive he was when he was Arsenal's only fit striker in the early days of 10/11, and we cannot say that he will not be impressive again, but he is certainly struggling at the moment. He has not had a decent game in 2011.

Van Persie's injury record suggests that Chamakh will at some point this season have to shoulder the burden up front. Is Wenger confident in his ability to do so? It is far from an ideal situation. But Arsenal have stopped dealing in ideal situations.

In 09/10, Wenger practically threw Arsenal's title hopes out the window with his refusal to sign a striker in January when Arsenal did not have a single fit front man. He knew Chamakh was coming for free in the summer, and so he sat on his hands, and we were presented with the ridiculous spectacle of Arshavin playing as centre forward in a couple of massive games.

There is uncertainty in every area of the pitch. Szczesny is a goalkeeper of great promise, but his understudy is a mistake waiting to happen. The defensive unit is suspect and ravaged by constant injury. Squillaci is seen, rightly or wrongly, as one of Wenger's worst signings. Of course, the defensive burden should be shared by the team as a whole, and when the most defensive-minded of your midfielders is the strolling, complacent Alex Song, you know you're in trouble.

What the central area lacks in solidity, it may now also lack in creativity. Europe's most prolifically inventive midfielder has just left, and two young, promising British players look as if they will be tasked with replacing him. No pressure, lads.

Up front, a strikeforce that looked toothless through much of last season may look even less threatening without Fabregas's service. Van Persie's record in 2011 speaks for itself, but so does his injury record, and Arsenal don't have another player with the same goal threat. Walcott is a good finisher but in Arsenal's current formation he can only play on the wing, and on the wing he often looks clueless. Arshavin is undeniably talented but also erratic and frustrating. Nasri could be on his way, and even if he stays another year, few would trust his attitude to hold up very well. Gervinho looks a decent signing but will take time to bed in.

2010/11 was a thoroughly unconvincing campaign. Arsenal, despite the myth to the contrary, did not often thrill with their football, and their contention in the title race was the result of glaring weaknesses in all the other challengers. They collapsed so completely in the final weeks that they finished 4th in a two horse race.

Despite fighting talk at the end of that season, Arsenal have now embarked on the new one with the squad clearly weakened. Fabregas is gone, Nasri is going, and while some of the perceived dead wood has been cleared, the only new arrivals are young players unproven at the highest level. Arsenal were very weak last May and now they are weaker.

It is hard to see Arsenal navigating the next three games with anything other than great difficulty. There may well be uproar at the first negative result. Wenger will see it as unfair but he alone has engineered this situation.

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