Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Sunday August 14 2011
The first day of the new football season is undoubtedly the most wonderful time of the year. Everyone`s clock is set to zero, excitement at its premium as destinies are there to be shaped. Having not undertaken an arduous coach journey for over 3 months, Newcastle away was an ideal destination to begin. The legs and mind are refreshed with the break from the scenery of the English motorway and its incessant lane closures. The long journey is met with enthusiasm, old acquaintances are renewed. It`s always the same faces that keep showing up. There`s a familial feeling about that that makes one feel warm and fuzzy inside.
The journey north took on a rather surreal bent as I had been asked on Friday afternoon to contribute to a discussion on Arsenal live on Radio 5. They asked me the general consensus of opinion and the mood amongst Arsenal fans. I tried to paint us as on a bit of a tipping point, waiting to see what the summer and the season brings before declaring an outright mutiny on the current manager. It appears I stretched the truth by trying to represent our current fan base as quite that considered.
Upon arrival into the city of Newcastle, Bruno, Terry, Young Tim and I took to the city centre in search of liquid refreshment. 4.30pm in Newcastle looks much like London does at about 11.30pm, crawling with people well on the way to drunken oblivion. My kind of town! At £8.25 for a round of four drinks, we were suitably refreshed without being economically brow beaten. With our gullets full, we made the walk back to St. James` Park and took on the 13 flights of stairs that lead to the upper echelons of the away enclosure. The air was a mild, but good natured shade of blue as the away fans chanted some unpleasant things about a man named Samir.
Arsenal dominated the opening half, but appeared to lack a little cohesion with their decision making in the final third. Kieran Gibbs broke forward inside the first fifteen minutes and found Arshavin in space on the edge of Newcastle`s area. He steered the ball wide to Gervinho, who appeared to get the ball stuck under his feet in the area. Ramsey picked up the loose ball and nudged it backwards to Rosicky, but he slightly miscued with an attempt to bend the ball into the bottom corner. Arsenal were playing well until they approached the last 5% of the field, where they lacked a little cohesion. Gervinho`s low cross looked to have been cleared by Taylor, but his clearance ricocheted off of Coloccini and into the path of van Persie, whose snap shot was deflected narrowly wide.
Danny Simpson was forced to make a hurried clearance from his goal line when Rosicky`s corner was met by Koscielny, who firmly challenged Krul. The ball spilled goalwards but Simpson hacked it away from the goal line. It would have been a deserved goal for Koscielny, who struck up an impressive partnership with Vermaelen. Vermaelen was all aggression, attacking every ball with ardour. Koscielny intelligently mopped and intercepted. Szczesny too proved to be a commanding presence behind, assertively commanding his area with a willingness to leave his goal line and alleviate pressure from the defence. It looks to be a solid building block for the season. But the Gunners best chance came five minutes before the interval, when Arshavin delightfully looped a ball over the top of the Newcastle defence for van Persie inside the area. But the Dutchman, who looked to be lacking a little in sharpness, couldn`t bring the ball under his spell. At half time, Arsenal looked solid if unspectacular. Given how ragged they looked last April; it was pleasing to see the "solid" element at least.
The second half did not offer up a great deal more in terms of goalmouth incident. Van Persie`s free kick from the right corner of the box whistled just over the bar. But the flashpoints have become the real talking points of the match. Firstly when Barton executed the type of challenge he specialises in. That is to say, a fair challenge that leaves a little nibble in after, designed to wind up the opponent. Alex Song was brain-dead enough to take the bait and stamped on the back of Joey Barton`s calf. Leaving aside the fact that many of us wouldn`t mind wiping our feet on Barton`s face, it was an immensely stupid act that will more than likely see him banned for 3 matches when we really don`t need it. Regardless of retrospective punishment, I`d like to think the club will relieve him of a couple of week`s salary.
The Gunners brought Walcott on in place of Arshavin to try and inject more direction into the Arsenal attack. It nearly paid off when van Persie found Ramsey, who found Walcott cutting in from the left. Theo got a shot away from inside the area, but Krul was able to hold at the second attempt. Newcastle`s most prescient opportunity seemed to arrive when Cabaye hooked a ball over the top of the Arsenal rearguard. Leon Best raced onto it but Laurent Koscielny rushed back with a clean interception to sniff out the danger. At about this time, a significant section of the away fans began to sing, "Spend some f*****g money." Presumably on defenders? When we`re defending well and keeping a clean sheet away from home? This should also assassinate the myth that our away support is any different from the home support. More vocal, yes. But the prevailing attitude is the same and has been for a few years now.
A dull game was however given a spark from a predictable source. Ramsey found Gervinho on the left; the Ivorian schemed his way into the box. His compatriot Tiote hung out a leg and appeared to catch Gervinho, if only slightly. Not the most stonewall penalty in the world, but not really a dive either. The referee and the players seemed happy to get on with it. Until Joey Barton, a man not exactly famed for his powers of self control, waded in and tried to haul Gervinho to his feet via his collar. (Gervinho was already getting up by now). A scuffle broke out, Gervinho slapped Barton on the side of the head, and the self styled hard man and scourge of teenage lads (on this evidence, you can see why he usually chooses to pick fights with boys under 18 in his personal travails) fell to the floor with quite pathetic exaggeration. So the very crime he accused Gervinho of, committed himself all of five seconds later.
It`s typical of Barton, who is a bully and a coward. (I reiterate, this would be why he fights lads much younger usually). Gervinho deserved his red card because you just cannot raise a hand and expect to get away with it. But there`s something wrong with the rules when the perpetrators constantly find the meagre punishment of a yellow card, when the reactor is given the ultimate penalty of a red card and three match ban. That Barton continues to get away with this kind of on pitch behaviour is baffling and is evidence that reports of Barton being a reformed character are well wide of the mark. Via his twitter feed, he has tried to restyle himself as a misunderstood, intellectual rebel. But no matter how many Nietzsche quotes he cuts and pastes into his tweets, the fact is that he just has absolutely no control over himself. This is why Newcastle are punting him on for free. Unfortunately, via Nasri, Diaby, Song and now Gervinho, our players keep reacting to him. Unfortunately, Barton is never punished for his misgivings in these situations. So he`ll do it again. Our reaction will have to be much more measured in future.
Arsenal were down to ten and would need concentration and work ethic to hold onto the point. With Vermaelen and Koscielny marshalling the back, they did so. It was a quality Arsenal didn`t show last season, the ability to adapt to in game situations and refocus their game plan. Joey Barton`s volley from the edge of the area was about as close as Newcastle came, as the Gunners held firm. Once again, the chants of "spend some f*****g money" rang out. It was a pretty inopportune time to air that grievance given that the team were down to ten men and holding firm. I can`t imagine how the likes of Vermaelen and Koscielny would have felt hearing that their efforts had gone so unappreciated by people who had paid money to come and watch them.
Arsenal might have nicked the win in injury time as the chance of a breakaway presented itself, with van Persie and Walcott running free with only Coloccini back to cover. But Djourou, uncharacteristically lacked composure in the pass and made a pig`s ear of the ball to Walcott, leading to the attack breaking down. In the end, I would view this as a point gained. The defence showed a confidence that provides us with a good building block for the season. It`s true we lacked incision in the final third, but I`d be confident of Arsenal finding that rhythm. The goalkeeper and defence have put down a good marker for the season and I see positives there. That`s not to say I don`t think we need some good back up for when Vermaelen or Koscielny are out, and I recognise that we`ll face more potent attacks, but we conceded four to the same set of players last season. The unbeaten side of 2003-04 drew 9 away games and often saw sense in shutting a game out when they couldn`t find their attacking rhythm. Nostalgia commits to memory that that side simply blew every team away with orgiastic attacking displays, but it wasn`t always the case. A good basis to build on. LD.
13.SZCZESNY, 3.SAGNA, 6.KOSCIELNY, 5.VERMAELEN, 28.GIBBS, 17.SONG, 16.RAMSEY (20.Djourou '89), 7.ROSICKY (26.Frimpong '82), 27.GERVINHO, 23.ARSHAVIN (14.Walcott '63), 10.v.PERSIE(c).
Unused: 15.Oxlade-Chamberlain, 18.Squillaci, 21.Fabianski, 29.Chamakh.
Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA
Date:Sunday August 14 2011
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Team News: Sunderland vs Arsenal - Walcott as Sub (Saturday October 25 2014)
Sunderland v Arsenal Match Preview (Friday October 24 2014)
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