Erik Ian Larsen: Arsenal’s embarrassing opener
Written by Erik Ian Larsen on August 16, 2010 19:00
A point. We got a point. If you’d told me, when Arsenal’s schedule was first released, that we’d walk away from Anfield with a point on opening day, I would’ve kissed your forehead and baptized your baby right there on the spot. And yet, after watching the pathetic display from the Arsenal side Sunday morning (8 a.m., bright and early folks!), I can’t help but leave the game relieved with the result but exasperated with the performance.
Arsenal were awful. It’s that simple. Outside from a marvelous debut for Laurent Koscielny, who experienced his own bit of Premier League adversity getting stretchered off in the first half for the red-carded Joe Cole only to return at the half and leave with his own red card before the final whistle, this was the feeble side of Arsenal that I’ve come to dread.
Slow movement. Lackluster effort. Toothless attacks.
We were embarrassing as a unit, up a man for the entire second half but letting Liverpool strike first against our stunned players not two minutes after the restart. Jack Wilshere, in his first Premier League start, had an otherwise great game but gifted a lazy pass away (the theme of the day!) to David Ngog in our own half, who fired past the comical Manuel Almunia for the 1-0 lead. Almunia, dumbfoundingly wearing the captain’s armband, was flapping at crosses all game like a toddler learning to play catch with his dad. Just totally overwhelmed. The inability of our goalkeepers to fight for position and claim crosses is going to be the ultimate death of our team this year unless Arsene Wenger wakes up from his contract coma and brings in a better option. I think a sheet of tiger-striped plywood stood up between the posts would be an improvement at this point.
Luckily for Arsenal, Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina karmically gifted us an own goal at the death to salvage a point (I hope Cesc enjoyed that as much as I did). It was last season but in yellow, the past playing out like a lost apparition, an unrewarded donation that will spur Wenger to praise our irrepressible spirit and determination. Ah yes, our bloody spirit. I half expected Wenger to pull Nicklas Bendtner out of the stands to save the draw. Or out of Denmark. Not sure where the injured Dane was, probably attending a royal ball or something.
And yet, as I watched the team, that’s precisely what was missing: Spirit. There was no energy from our midfield – Andrei Arshavin could’ve been running around the field naked all game for all I know – and Abou Diaby was especially infuriating. Arshavin appears content to drift about the peripherals of the game, noticed it this preseason and forlornly hoped for a revitalization come Anfield, and Diaby, playing in the holding midfielder position with Alex Song on the bench and Emmanuel Frimpong not even making the substitutes sheet (facepalm), was a spinning ball of implosive dribbling. Diaby only passes when he has to; otherwise he selfishly attempts to kill the opposition with “death by 1,000 dribbles.”
But that’s what kills Arsenal. We depend on possession, we depend on teamwork and shared passing. That’s how Wenger’s constructed the offense, and throwing away possession, like Wilshere did in the defensive half and EVERYONE did in the offensive half, leads to opposing goals. Having someone whose job it is to commandeer the midfield whirling endlessly in circles until losing possession sucks the life out of the attack and leaves teammates hesitant to pass themselves. The model is broken when players stand still, and standing still on the ball will ALWAYS lead to a turnover. Not sometimes. Always. That’s not to say holding midfielders shouldn’t stand tall and slow the game down around them (does Diaby even know who Patrick Vieira is?), but it doesn’t mean dribbling a hole to China.
When Emmanuel Eboue, Wilshere, and Diaby were subbed off, the offense came alive. Tomas Rosicky showed once more how vital he can be to our title chances when fit, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him pick up a start against Blackpool. Nasri was strong on the ball and supersub Theo Walcott showed, well, what he always shows: Pace but no end-product. But Theo was lively and reinvigorated the attack, and with a sharper Robin van Persie and Marouane Chamakh (not exactly the best debut from our resident “Stargate” cast member), that effort may well have been rewarded. But you can’t fault Theo, at least he showed energy and effort and drove toward the Liverpool goal. You certainly couldn’t say that for the rest of the midfield.
Defensively Arsenal weren’t terrible; Ngog’s goal was a top-shelf belter that only a great keeper would’ve saved (no joke necessary). Thomas Vermaelen and Koscielny showed why Wenger’s put so much faith in them with superb performances down the spine of the defense, but the collective ineptitude defending set pieces shows me that this is a team with a long way to go before lifting the Premier League trophy. I dread facing Rory Delap already.
If I were Arsene, I’d splash myself in the face with a cold martini, walk into the dressing room, kick a water bottle against Arshavin’s head while he answered silly questions on his Web site, and tell everyone that football is a game of MOMENTUM. If you have momentum, both in the middle of a match and throughout a season, you can win a trophy. If you don’t want to win a trophy, we can sell you and bring in someone who does. If you’re happy loafing around the pitch, walking toward the opposing players hopeful they’ll kick it away so you can go back to counting blades of grass, we can replace you. If you’d rather ignore your teammates and dribble to death, you can go do that for a pub team. You are not bigger than the team, you are not better than the red and white shirt you’re so lucky to wear. So enjoy the draw, feel lucky you escaped the howling embarrassment that you deserved from that display, thank the country of Spain for contributing so much to Arsenal this summer so far, and get ready to get your arses kicked on the training ground next week.