Starting with Song and Frimpong, I thought we’d be able to keep it tight in midfield in the first half and stifle the Italians. Instead, it seemed Song and Frimpong were unsure as to who was meant to be the primary holding player, leaving space for our back four to be attacked. The game was worryingly open, and that allowed the hosts to take the lead as they were allowed too much time around our box to create the chance for Di Natale to score. Johan Djourou was also caught out of position for the goal.
We should have at least been level at half time though. Theo Walcott spurned a great opportunity after excellent play from Gervinho. The Ivorian looked full of running and was a constant threat.
Arsene Wenger isn’t usually overly keen on making half time substitutions, and bringing on Tomas Rosicky for the more defensive Emmanuel Frimpong in theory shouldn’t have made our midfield better defensively. However, Alex Song was able to sit in front of the back four and not try and attack, meaning Djourou and Vermaelen weren’t as exposed. Rosicky added an extra dimension going forward, and also worked hard to track back and make tackles. It was the sort of tactical move from Arsene Wenger that reminded people he isn’t losing it as a manager.
There were small moments in the half that made me think the team were ready to give more to win games. A few minutes before the equaliser, Udinese became frustrated after Arsenal didn’t put the ball out of play for an ‘injury’ to one of their players. The player involved had added a few rolls in to his elaborate fall, so it was understandable to not put the ball out of play. We got under the skin of the hosts and benefited from that by scoring.
The equaliser came from great wing play from Gervinho. One of the guys watching the game with me kept making the point that Gervinho can’t cross, but if he runs to the by-line and plays the right pass, that won’t matter as he’ll create plenty of goals for the club. It’s a shame he’s missing on Sunday as I think he’d have caused Manchester United problems. The finish from Robin van Persie may have been simple, but it’s good to have the Dutchman off the mark for the season, as when he’s in form, goals tend to flow.
Then came a turning point in game, and potentially in our season. I don’t want to over-hype the importance of the save too much, but had we gone 2-1 down, Udinese would have been able to build up pressure again and potentially knock us out with a third goal. However, we stayed ahead in the tie and our second goal a few minutes after the save virtually assured qualification. That save was almost the difference between us going through and going out, and the consequences of not making it through in terms of the club’s reputation, financial situation and ability to sign players would have been large.
The penalty award itself was baffling. Vermaelen was pushed in the back and clearly didn’t mean to handle the ball. However justice was done because of Szczesny’s save. It was reminiscent of David Seaman’s save against Sampdoria back in the 90s, except Szczesny dived the other way. It wasn’t as if Di Natale hit a weak shot either. It was a good penalty, but Szczesny managed to tip it over the bar with his massive frame. That sort of commanding goalkeeping also added to my sense of actually watching the real Arsenal again. I’ve mentioned it already this season, but I think Szczesny is great. He can be our number one for years as he has the attitude, mentality and ability for it. The fact he psyched out Di Natale beforehand was also impressive and shows he’ll do what is needed to win.
Our winning goal was also reminiscent of Arsenal in years gone by. Quick approach play down the left resulted in the number 14 flying towards goal from the left flank before burying it past the goalkeeper. Theo Walcott still has a long way to go to be near the levels of Thierry Henry, however he showed he can be effective cutting in from the left hand side. With Gervinho in the side, there is more scope for Walcott to do that and finish like he did on Wednesday. The interplay with Bacary Sagna was also excellent in the lead up to the goal, showing the willingness and ability of Sagna to play where needed. Although he still didn’t look fully comfortable at left back, Sagna did the job and claimed a good assist for Walcott.
We saw the rest of the match out relatively comfortably. The second half was just what we needed to get confidence and belief back into the team. Without Cesc and Nasri in the squad, it seems those who are in the dressing room really want to be at Arsenal and wear the cannon with pride. We saw for the first time on Wednesday that they’re ready to fight for each other and can produce results and good football under pressure. It seems like a long time that those playing for Arsenal have played like it really meant something to them. It was a night for fans to regain some pride in the club as the real Arsenal returned and stood up to be counted.
The draw yesterday has put us in a group with Marseille, Olympiakos and Borussia Dortmund. It’s a tricky group, but one we should still get out of. Marseille and Olympiakos are definitely beatable, however Dortmund will be a real test.
Hopefully, the spirit shown on Wednesday reappears on Sunday at Old Trafford. One good half against Udinese has got the confidence up, but we shouldn’t get carried away. Manchester United still go into the game as massive favourites after their start in the league, but at least I don’t think we’ll be embarrassingly thrashed, as I did after the Liverpool game.
Our biggest problem will be the midfield due to the number of injuries and suspensions in there. Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong are suspended, whilst Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby are injured. It leaves only Aaron Ramsey and Tomas Rosicky as the regular first teamers available to play in central midfield. Craig Eastmond or Henri Lansbury could be the third player to fill in, but there would be a lot of pressure on them to hold their own on such a big stage. There don’t appear to be many other options as I highly doubt we’ll sign anyone else to fill in there in time. The only other possibility is if Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen are all fit, then Djourou or Vermaelen could play as a holding midfielder. However given they’re inexperienced in the role, it would be a risk.
Going forward, I’m confident we can cause United problems. Players like van Persie, Rosicky and Ramsey should look to test de Gea as often as possible, and with Gervinho suspended, we need a big game performance from Andrey Arshavin to stand a chance of winning. Should we need to score later in the match, I hope Arsene Wenger doesn’t have any hesitation in bringing on Ryo Miyaichi, as I think he’ll play without fear and scars of defeats to Manchester United in the past. He’s the sort of player that could surprise the hosts.
Honestly, I’m not expecting much from the trip to Old Trafford, but there is now just a hint of optimism creeping back into supporters that we could get a result up there. If we’re not over-run in midfield, that optimism could turn into a positive result.
There is still time for Arsene Wenger to strengthen the squad, and news emerged this morning that he had bid for a centre back! Not just any centre back either, a centre back with Premier League experience! The bid for Gary Cahill was considered way too low and was rejected, which is a shame, but at least we can see some progress. The fact he made a bid at all should be viewed as progress. Hopefully we’ll up it sufficiently for Bolton to do business as I think Cahill would be a good signing.
I still think we need another midfielder and a striker, but I doubt we’ll be serious about getting deals done until after the Manchester United match. Hopefully, the added money from Champions League qualification and player sales will enable us to make the needed additions before the deadline. At least those who are the club, are looking like an Arsenal side again, something we haven’t seen for a while.
Oh, and in other news Samir Nasri left to fill his money bags at Manchester City, and questioned Arsenal fans’ passion. 17/12/2011 and 07/03/2012; that’s when he’ll experience just how passionate us Gooners are, and probably be on the end of some serious Frimpong tackles.
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