It was Arsene Wenger’s twelfth anniversary in charge of the club, Hull City were the opponents. The fans were expectant of a cricket score. Yet as we’ve seen in a number of games in the past four years, the players became complacent. They did not respect Hull City in this game. They played at a snail’s pace in terms of tempo, didn’t fight for any ball, and were beaten by the better team. The second half, after our goal, was shambolic.
What was ominous about the Hull game was how Fabregas spoke of the Champions League in the build up to the Hull game, a telling sign that the players were supposedly saving themselves for the bigger name. After a week, where the club was in the headlines consistently, with first the side taking the three points for the third game running at the Reebok, and then the youngest ever side thrashing Championship side Sheffield United, the players bought into their own hype, as has happened many times over the past few years.
The excuses have come out, with it being quite ironic for William Gallas to speak of complacency. It seems he has regressed in his defensive capabilities and is infatuated at playing a Beckenbauer role, in setting up attacks from deep, and often finishing. Yes, he has scored three goals, which have led to some key results in the Champions League, but his main occupation is to defend. And it seems that he is slow to pick up his marker, complacent on the ball and poor when attacking an aerial ball. While he may not be one of the most vocal leaders, he has to lead by example in his play. There is no doubt that some smug pundit will mention the incidents at St. Andrews last season, but it isn’t a matter of his speech-making capabilities this time, but simple defending. And it appears he can’t do that either.
Even more surprising was Kolo Toure’s admission that the pressure of the fan’s overwhelming expectation affected him. It is these sorts of situations a Champions League-quality player should thrive on. It is a part of the job a player has in dealing the media attention and if it affected him, he should seriously look at his career prospects. This was Hull City, no disrespect to a Tigers side who fully deserved their victory, not Real Madrid. No doubt this was just another pathetic reason, which the players are forced to come out with upon closer scrutiny by the media in the press conference.
Tonight’s game against Porto is another chance to make this a memorable anniversary. Wenger claimed there were elements of the game which made him physically sick. While he will never admit it in front of the media, there is no other word instead of complacency to describe the Arsenal mentality we had seen on Saturday. Most fans will be glad to hear that a number of changes will happen but it is very likely that some of the poorest performers will remain. Toure, despite the more consistent central defender should make way for Johan Djourou, who is taller and perhaps more capable with an aerial threat. Gallas’ errors make him the obvious choice to be banished to the bench, but having the armband makes him unsusceptible to demotion. Hopefully this view is proved wrong by the boss, but the idea of making substitutions and team selection based on seniority is a major flaw in Arsene Wenger’s tactical arsenal. If this flaw lives up to its reputation, than we could even see the veteran Mikael Silvestre start.
Samir Nasri is fit and if he starts, he should provide balance and elegance to complement the direct runner on the right flank, be it the improving Eboue or an unpolished diamond in Walcott. The latter showed his indecision in front of goal when given time to make a choice. When only given one option, he has shown the direct attitude, which has suddenly made him a worldwide star. The assisting dribble and pass for our scrappy goal was one of the few instances in which our most dangerous player was able to exert his influence. On a number of other occasions, he flashed in decent crosses, which our non-existent strike-force didn’t bother to attack. Walcott should start but do not be surprised to see Eboue, whose partnership with Sagna makes the full-back much more effective and provides further defensive security.
Unfortunately Alexandre Song is still feeling the effects of a knock from the Carling Cup victory, and despite making the bench on Saturday, will not take any part in a game where his strength and tactical nous would have been vital. His exclusion has opened up a spot on the bench possibly for one of the younger players, such as Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere. What must be done, however, is a change in the striking department. While Robin Van Persie may be technically superior to most footballers, his selfishness is an attribute that is affecting the team negatively. The over-reliance on power, with accuracy sacrificed, when shooting, and some reckless challenges out of frustration are reasons why he should be benched. He has the hallmarks of a certain Arsenal Dutch legend but he must iron out these flaws to reach his pinnacle.
The enigmatic Dutchman is not effective to the side as Adebayor is currently. Both will improve but for tonight Nicklas Bendtner must play some part. One assumes the home encounter will result in a 4-4-2 formation. Yet Wenger has been known to spring some surprises and a 4-5-1 with Nasri in the half striker role is not at all inconceivable. The game is the first Arsenal group stage game on ITV since the 1-0 success against PSV Eindhoven courtesy of an Alex goal in 2004. Let’s hope the terrible football analysis (see: camera shots showing Andy Townsend using a computer to make his point) is overshadowed by an Arsenal success.
As for the opponents, they have endured a shaky start to the league season. Yet a success against Fenerbache on the opening match-day, which currently has them heading the table, and a narrow victory against Paços de Ferreira, courtesy of a Raul Meireles strike, has turned fortunes around. They have lost the marauding full-back Jose Bosingwa to Chelsea and the man who is eternally in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow, Ricardo Quaresma has signed for Inter, with his last performance an anonymous 90 minutes in the Milan derby. Lucho Gonzalez, the Argentinean maestro, returns having missed their weekend fixture, while Lisandro Lopez, scorer of 24 goals last season, is also available. The 2004 winners are a much more attacking line up now, yet some argue they lack the cutting edge to pose a huge threat to the English dominance of the competition.
If nothing eventful happens in the game tonight, keep an eye out for the wonderfully named Hulk, a 22 year old Brazilian striker (real name: Givanildo Vieira de Souza). He is likely to start as a substitute to Argentine attacker Farias. Euro 2008 star Raul Meireles will also look to start in Jesualdo Ferreira’s side that Arsenal should approach with respect. We are best when there is no media attention or on the end of a defeat and heavy criticism. There will be a reaction on Tuesday and Porto will prove a huge test. Fabregas talked of its importance, now they have to deliver.