FT:- 1-0(Walcott 3)
Ref:- Kevin Blom (The Netherlands)
Arsenal:- Szczesny, Sagna, Vermaelen (c), Koscielny, Gervinho, Gibbs (Djorou 45 then Carl Jenkinson 55), Rosicky (Frimpong 72), Walcott, Ramsey, Alex Song, Chamakh. Subs Not Used: Fabianski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Arshavin, Bendtner
Bookings:- Walcott (9, Foul), Gibbs (44, Foul)
Udinese:- Handanovic, Larangeira, Neuton (Pasquale 59), Mehdi Benatia, Ekstrand, Armero, Isla, Agyemang-Badu, Asamoah, Pinzi (Abdi 87), Di Natale (c). Subs Not Used: Belardi, Doubai, Denis, Vydra, Diego Fabbrini
Bookings:- Ekstrand (1, Foul), Neuton (9, Dissent), Pinzi (70, Foul), Armero (78, Time-wasting)
A pre-season that has seen lots of talk of movement away from Arsenal, but few new recruits, has led the spoilt malcontents amongst the Emirates following to distort the once reverentially chanted ‘In Arsene we Trust’, to the more than a little sarcastic ‘In Arsene we Rust’. The general atmosphere around Wenger’s squad was not aided by a drab goalless draw against the Geordie mediocrity, that did nothing but highlight their one quality summer signing’s potential disciplinary failings. Then there was the long-previewed end of Fabregas’ involvement with the North London club. Set against this backdrop this was really no time to be going into a Champion’s League qualifier against the 4th best squad in the Serie A – and more notably the Italian top-flight’s highest scorers. To compound all of this negativity further, due to Arsenal’s general lack of discipline in the tournament last term, their two most influential players, Nasri and Van Persie, were suspended, whilst Wenger himself was farcically banished to the stands thanks to UEFA’s utterly pointless punishment system for touchline transgressions.
After all of this a 1-0 win might be viewed as an impressive result, particularly as for a large part of the second-half Wenger’s side had to make do with a 19-year old debutant full-back, as a result of injuries first to the impressive, and absurdly unlucky, Kieran Gibbs, and then to his replacement Djorou, who had been on the park for less than ten minutes. However, after a bright opening, in which Walcott and Ramsey excelled, Arsenal rode their luck for the best part of an hour, before sparking to life with the introduction of the steroid abusing ‘Incredible Hulk’ lookalike, Emmanuel Frimpong. This wasn’t so much, as the cliche goes, a game of two half’s, as a game of two different tactics.
Udinese started the game with an experienced debutant full-back of their own in the young Brazilian left-back Neuton, and it was a combination of his callowness and Ekstrand ‘s (operating on the right) impulsiveness that initially had Udinese on the back foot. Guidolin had clearly set Udinese up to counter-attack, with what was in effect a five man defence, with two centre-backs shielded by a holding midfielder and flying wing-backs. As a result of this initial formation Udinese gave Arsenal way too much room to impose themselves in the middle of the park and down both flanks.
Early on Ekstrand added to his problems with a booking after just a minute. The card-happy Dutch referee would go on to dole out 6 more yellow cards (2 for Arsenal and 4 for Udinese). With Ramsey and Walcott switching wings at random and Gervinho frequently slipping out onto the flank to allow Ramsey to tuck into the centre of the park, for the first thirty minutes of the match Arsenal found an immense amount of space attacking down the touchlines. In particular the right-side was proving fruitful, where Neuton was finding it difficult to handle Arsenal’s direct running. Frankly, it was a shock to see Arsenal players breaking wide and quickly delivering dangerous crosses into the box, and clearly Udinese were also reeling, for after just 3 minutes (not 4, unless you consider 3:07 to be a full minute extra, come on UEFA sort it out) Ramsey got the ball out wide on the right, swung in a delightful near-post cross, which thankfully Walcott got to before Chamakh to coolly volley into the net.
What a fantastic start and Arsenal’s forward line began to really enjoy themselves with Walcott delivering a sweet corner ten minutes in, that glided over to the back post only for Vermaelen to get in Gervinho’s way and prevent an almost certain second goal. Who’d have thought that Arsenal would spend their summer working on corners? Despite this early domination from Arsenal, Udinese started to post markers of their own attacking prowess, with Di Natale cracking a free-kick off Szczesny’s goal from 20 yards. Then after Koscielny and Song had pulled themselves out of position rushing forward (only for Song to over-elaborate in the penalty area and waste another gilt-edged chance), Di Natale moved into the space Song had vacated and clipped an inviting ball over Arsenal’s backline toward Pinzi. This move required an excellent intervention from the classy and composed Vermaelen.
The unsung hero of Arsenal’s first-half was Rosicky, who looked back to his best in a deep-lying midfield role that allowed him to act as a metronomic link between the attacking thrusts of full-backs Sagna and Gibbs, and the fluid movement of Walcott, Ramsey and Gervinho. It was Rosicky who balanced Arsenal, providing the midfield pivot from which the attacking midfielders could do their considerable damage. Unfortunately Arsenal had to contend with one of the most uninspiring displays I’ve seen from a centre-forward since Michael Ricketts was considered England material. I’d have been interested to see whether Wenger would have taking Chamakh off at some point in the second-half, if not for the two injuries that the Gunners suffered, as the Moroccan’s display was drab, lacklustre and almost completely lifeless (much like Welbeck’s for Utd on Sunday).
With Wenger having set his side up with a nice balance across the midfield that perfectly exploited Udinese’s deep defending, it was up to Guidolin to shift the match his sides way with a deft piece of reshaping. Just past the half hour mark Guidolin opted to push his wing-backs further up the field, releasing Isla from his holding role in front of the defence. This recalibration into a 4-5-1 formation had the effect of swamping the midfield, pushing Ramsey and Walcott much further up the park and preventing Sagna and Gibbs from marauding forward quite so often. It also reduced the space that Rosicky could operate in, forcing him to rush his passing game and thus seeing him lose possession far more regularly. From this point onwards Arsenal were the team reduced to rather impotent counter-attacks.
Udinese’s changed shape allowed Di Natale to become much more mobile, moving across the forward lines and playing in that dangerous area that Rooney inhabited for Utd on Sunday, somewhere between the midfield and the attack. It also allowed the Colombian midfielder Armero to become much more influential, his power, running and stamina almost single-handedly dominating the Arsenal midfield until the introduction of Frimpong late on. Significantly Gervinho was drifting inside far more often, making his dynamic dribbling game a lot less fruitful. Whilst Song almost completely disappeared from the game as an attacking threat, having to spend most of the second-half shielding the always suspect Koscielny.
Ideally half-time should have brought a change of the system by Wenger, but the injuries to Gibbs and then Djorou, probably did for that possibility. The second half started with Udinese capitalising on a horribly slack defensive pass from Koscielny, that allowed Di Natale to break into the box, with only an excellent sliding tackle from Djorou (in which he was injured) denying a likely goal. Worse was to come when young debutant Carl Jenkinson (filling in at left-back after Djorou’s injury) got the wrong side of Isla in the box, allowing the now flying winger to get a clear sight of goal, but unfortunately opting to drag the ball agonisingly across the 6-yard box.
Arsenal, reduced to infrequent breaks from deep were looking a shambles both defensively (with the exception of Vermaelen) and in the middle of the park. Rosicky’s strong first-half display gave way to an increasingly tired and messy performance in the second-half, which forced Wenger to bring on Frimpong. The sturdy looking youngster almost managed to make Wenger’s night a truly depressing one as he proceeded to assault two separate Udinese midfielders with his first two contributions of the match, the Dutch referee being remarkably restrained in his allocation of free-kicks with no cards. Frimpong, an injury sidelined fringe player, that has become an object of ridicule for the Wenger-hounders amongst the Gooners, was actually the most important player for Arsenal in the closing stages of the match.
His arrival gave the lethargic, almost comatosed, Arsenal midfield a burst of energy and dynamism (even if a little unfocused). It also helped to counteract a little of Armero’s influence in the centre of the park for Udinese, bringing both Gervinho and Aaron Ramsey back to life (unfortunately it could do nothing for the still on holiday Chamakh). Arsenal weren’t suddenly in control of the match, but they were looking a lot livelier than they had been since the break.
In the remaining fifteen minutes Ramsey and Walcott linked up beautifully on two separate occasions, both of which Walcott bizarrely frittered away. Gervinho was also denied a goal opportunity by a superb intervention from Ekstrand, who at first was horrified when he thought the referee was gesturing toward the penalty spot. As in the first half Arsenal were having most good fortune down the flanks, but Ramsey was assuredly assuming the role that Rosicky’s lack of stamina had denied the Gunners. Despite all of these late positives Udinese were still the more dominant side and quite how Pinzi, Di Natale, or the hugely impressive Armero didn’t score is a puzzler.
Late on both goalkeepers were called on to make remarkable saves, with Szczesny denying Di Natale from a free-kick and Handanovic somehow getting to an authoritative strike from Walcott, after some great dribbling through the Udinese defence by Gervinho. Arsenal should feel content to have kept a cleansheet despite the presence of, the at times clownish, Koscielny (a clear indicator of where Wenger simply must make a signing before the transfer window closes). They’ll now go to North-east Italy in a week’s time, hopefully with Nasri and Van Persie returning to the squad. However, if they are to prevail in Italy they will need to show a lot more nous than they did here. Despite the fact that after half an hour it was pretty clear that Udinese had worked out their attacking threat, Arsenal didn’t change things up and the players didn’t really look for alternative areas to probe. This group complacency could end up giving those Wenger-hounding ingrates just the right kind of ammunition to gun down an Arsenal legend.
My MOM:- Pablo Armero – The Colombian may have been on the losing side, but he did more than anyone else on that pitch to try and win the match tonight. Walcott may have scored the only goal and generally had a decent match, but at points in the second-half Armero appeared to be everywhere: tackling back to prevent Arsenal counters, crossing from the wing, passing from deep, running through the Arsenal rearguard. All of that and he still had enough energy to complete a pinpoint overhead kick cross in the 89th minute. Superb display.
And Another Thing…:- Seriously, what are they feeding the footballers in Ghana? Essien’s a titanium built bull of a player and now we’ve got the Incredible Hulk’s blacker cousin marauding around North London like some over-excitable Duracell bunny.