Friday, 23 September 2011

A small step forward, a decent performance... and a place in the fourth round

Tuesday night at the Emirates was, believe it or not, pretty good fun. All the more surprising since the early signs weren’t too promising – as expected, Shrewsbury were fired up and started strongly right from the kick-off, although a young Gunners line-up were also initially bright and positive, if not altogether convincing at the back. No surprises there, then. Arsenal, featuring a mix of youthful and new faces (and indeed both), put some nice but not particularly incisive passes together and were clearly trying to find time to settle. Unfortunately, they didn’t get it. As we should know only too well by now, the Premier League’s Goliaths under-estimate the upstart Davids of the lower divisions at their peril, particularly when it comes to a team on a good cup run and with two kills (well, Swansea and Derby) to their credit already. That football truism and rather tortured metaphor, combined with the intense pressure on an untested Arsenal side, meant that it was not altogether unexpected when the team from League Two took the lead through a James Collins header from a cross lofted in by Marvin Morgan – both already identified in the matchday programme as the danger men. Evidently, neither Djourou nor Miquel had read it, and worryingly the first-team’s chronic lack of confidence in defence seemed to have permeated throughout the squad.

But despite some groans and murmurs of discontent, the crowd refused to get on the team’s back. Mutterings about the ‘same old Arsenal’ soon turned to shouts of encouragement, and the team responded seventeen minutes after going behind. Kieran Gibbs – who had a good game – popped up with a composed and well-timed header. Thereafter, although perhaps not quite plain sailing, we were certainly on the right tack, and finished the first half having restored parity and beginning, perhaps, to get the edge.

Shrewsbury tired visibly in the second half, while Arsenal seemed to gain in confidence and strength, ultimately dominating the game with various displays of attacking intent that culminated in a superb goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. In the first half he seemed to be already picking up on the Gunners’ tendency to try and walk the ball into the net rather than simply hit it, but in the 58th minute hit it he did – and how. Our new number 15 (infinitely more exciting than the Brazilian crab who wore it last season) was the standout performer of the match, although Frimpong, Coquelin, Jenkinson and Benayoun also performed well. It was good to see Yossi get on the score sheet with a typically well-taken close-range finish, picking his spot well and side-footing into the far corner of the Shrewsbury net after a cut-back from Ozzy Ozyakup. Ozyakup, introduced for the uncompromising but effective Frimpong in the second half, also turned in a good display, chasing some seemingly lost causes and revitalising the play, showing industry as well as desire to get on the ball. We saw an intriguing glimpse of Ryo, who entered the fray as a substitute for the hard-working but fairly ineffectual Park. Ryo showed plenty of skill and good feet, looking quick and keen to get into the box. The towering Chuks Aneke also came on for a blink-and-you-missed-it cameo. He deserves a proper chance to play in this competition at least, after turning in some excellent performances for the reserves, and looks a good prospect. At 6’ 2” and 14-stone, he could be our very own Andy Carroll, but with better hair and no drink problem (judging from some lucid responses in the programme interview, anyway).

The disappointments were the fringe players – Fabianski showed why he’ll probably struggle to get the number 1 spot back from Szczesny, while captain for the night Johan Djourou struggled badly, caught out of position time and time again whilst barely competing with the big Shrewsbury forwards in the air. After looking for a period last season like he would be the best option out of the three first-team CB’s we had to partner Vermaelen, he must now be behind Mertesacker and Koscielny in Wenger’s mind, although probably still ahead of Squillaci – just. Frustratingly, Chamakh was anonymous up front and still looks a shadow of the player who started his Arsenal career so strongly. I am bemused by the apparent change in his attitude and play, which maybe points to unhappiness in London or with his place in the squad. Snap out of it, Marouane – we will need more than solely Robin van Persie to score the goals this season.

The other major positive of the night was the crowd, who were in good voice – certainly those on the North Bank, anyway. Like the team on the pitch, they seemed to be a little younger, a bit less jaded. This might have had something to do with the fact that the club were advertising £10 tickets earlier last week, and perhaps that Carling Cup matches attract a slightly different type of Arsenal fan. An attendance of 46,539 was apparently the lowest ever recorded at Emirates (but still more than any other Carling Cup fixture this season), but they were genuinely loud and supportive. All the songs came out, and Arsène, a man who is, if we are to believe the media, struggling under the pressure of it all, even gave us a wave, after a spontaneous chant rippled through the crowd. It was almost like the good old days.

Arsenal got the win, which although expected was by no means a formality, with a positive display marred only by nervy defending. Nevertheless the team showed a resilience and good character to regroup and retake the lead after going behind. No collapse points to an improvement that will surely add some confidence to the squad. Buoyed then by what I thought was a pretty good performance, all in all, and a new-found faith in my fellow Gooners, I meandered home through N7 in good cheer. When I got home, I turned on the laptop to see what others had made of it all. The few early match reports from the news and sports websites seemed to describe a very different game to what I’d just witnessed (yeah, that’s you, Guardian). Evidently, a few hacks already had their 'Arsenal still in crisis' pieces written and ready to file until the Gunners actually went and won the game. A quick check of some early doors Arsenal blogs, meanwhile, seemed to reveal that they had less to say about the game than bemoan the fact that they couldn’t find a video stream. Now, one of the best things about Arsenal fans is the chance of finding one in any bar in any city in the world, and I appreciate not everyone can get to the Emirates (even when it’s only a tenner to get in) on a Tuesday night, but I didn’t realise that so many commentators and opinion-formers speculate, debate and even criticise without actually watching the games…

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