The fisticuffs were more entertaining than the football
Arsenal kicked off their 2011-12 Premier League season against Newcastle at St James' Park Saturday—less than a year removed from the scene of last season's 4-4 meltdown, when the Gunners coughed up a four-goal lead.
The build-up to the fixture was certainly less than ideal, due to the impending departures of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri, and the manager Arsene Wenger recently coming under fire for an unusually-belligerent pre-game press conference on Friday, in which the Frenchman was short in his response to questions surrounding those two want-away players.
Arsenal's lack of signings in the defensive department has also been a cause for much grief among the supporters, so it was paramount that the team defend well from front to back against Newcastle.
The match was a scrappy and ill-tempered affair, ending 0-0 with precious few chances.
Newsigning Gervinho was sent off for Arsenal (looks like the no. 27 shirt has found a new home) after a scrape with Joey Barton, and eight other players from both teams received yellow cards.
For Arsenal, the result was somewhat disappointing, but what would have been a greater cause for worry was the lack of creativity in the team. Without Fabregas and Nasri pulling the strings in midfield, they found it difficult to create a clear-cut chance over 90 minutes against the hard-working, industrious Magpies.
And this absence of a creative spark will be magnified even further should those two afore-mentioned midfielders fly the Emirates coop.
With a tricky Champions League tie against Udinese looming, things only get tougher from here.
However, amid the doom and gloom, one must bear in mind that this was only the first game of the season, coming after a tumultuous preseason. There were a number of pleasing aspects to Arsenal's performance.
Here are five positive themes to emerge from the opening fixture...
Laurent Koscielny: Outstanding
Call me crazy, but in my opinion, more than a victory, the most important priority for Arsenal today was to come away with a clean sheet, and the team did just that. Had we won 3-2, we would have taken all three points, but the press would have focused on our defensive frailties.
"When do you plan to sign a new defender, Arsene" would have been the popular theme at the press conference. Arsene Wenger would have had to come up with yet another reason why Arsenal are not defensively naive. And no one would have believed him! Conceding goals would have also dented our defenders' self-belief. Confidence, and the lack thereof, are both contagious.
I thought we defended magnificently today. Starting from the goal keeper. I have tremendous belief in Wojciech Szczesny. I have admired his confidence and ability from day one, and I have predicted a great future for him. He has talked up Arsenal's pre-season preparations in terms of defending set-pieces in particular, and today, one could see a massive difference. Szczesny was a commanding presence in the box, often going far off his line to collect or punch. Newcastle are generally dangerous from set-pieces, especially with the aerial presence of Shola Ameobi, Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini, but today that threat was nullified.
Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny were solid at the back, both in the air and on the ground, and you could see what we missed last season in Vermaelen's absence. He has a real presence about him, snapping into tackles, always being aggressive and even driving forward on occasion. Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs were good as well, but I would have liked more from them going forward. Alex Song was his usual self, sitting just above the back four, diving into tackles and breaking up play. He had a moment of madness when he stamped on Joey Barton, and I fear this may lead to a three-game ban. Not very good news.
Further afield, I feel the front five also did a good job of closing down their opponents, and not giving them time on the ball. This is something that Arsenal normally don't do well, and I hope we see more of this in the games to come.
All in all, one of the best 'team' defensive performances I have seen from the Gunners in recent times.
The boy's done well
But since then, Wenger has come out and stated that one of the primary reasons behind Clichy's sale was the fact that he felt that Gibbs was ready to be a regular starter. This raised a major hullabaloo, and Wenger's head was on the chopping block for supporting a young player again.
It was thus important that Gibbs made a good start to the season, especially with the next four games being massive. And looking back, I have to say that I was impressed with what he did today, especially at the defensive end. He was quick and positive, and he timed his movements well. His attacking play will come on in due course, but it is much more important that he remains consistent and focused defensively, unlike Clichy, who made a few high-profile errors in recent seasons. This is a fantastic opportunity for one so young, and it is important that he makes the most of it.
Injuries have dogged Arsenal for the past few years. There have been times, such as the end of the 2009-10 season, when we had as many as 6 out of our starting XI on the treatment table. Of course, this is barely mentioned as the team's performances are scrutinized and crucified.
At this time, considering the overall playing squad, as well as the run of fixtures over the next two weeks, it is vital that we keep all our key players fit. We cannot afford to have anyone miss games.
To this end, we did extremely well. And we still have Jack Wilshere to add to today's team. And Abou Diaby. We will be without Gervinho and, surely, Alex Song for our next few league games, thanks to one former Scouser, but at least they will be available for both legs vs Udinese.
Keep fit, boys. Especially RvP, Jack and TV5.
No messing with us (ref, that meant you too)!!
Arsenal teams have, in recent years, shown a weak underbelly. An ability to be pushed and kicked off the park. A tendency to sulk and complain when the going gets rough. This has encouraged teams like Blackburn, Stoke, Bolton and Birmingham to come hard at Arsenal and dish out the physical treatment, a strategy that has yielded plenty of success.
But today we saw a different Arsenal. An Arsenal that gave as good as they got. An Arsenal that didn't mind rolling up their sleeves and having a go. An Arsenal that was happy to be pushed and kicked to the floor. Something that may easily be seen in the yellow card count (5-3 to Arsenal).
The only sour note was struck by Gervinho's ejection, and Song's stupid stamp. I'm surprised that the players were so easily provoked by Barton. If you look at last season's 4-4 draw, the turning point was the sending off of Diaby. Doing the honors that day was the same J. Barton.
So either Wenger hasn't briefed them, or the players have lost concentration. Either way, not such a good thing.
But overall, on courage, commitment and fighting spirit, A+ to Arsenal.
"Psst, has he sent him off yet? I'm waiting to get up"