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Szczęsny gives Arsenal 25 million reasons to be happy

Udinese 1 Arsenal 2

Di Natale 39; van Persie 55, Walcott 69 (Di Natale missed pen 59)

On a nervy night in Udine which had been variously labelled as ‘crucial’, ‘season-defining’ and ‘the £25m game’ by pundits and approached with trepidation by the club’s fans, Arsenal secured a 14th consecutive qualification for the main Champions League draw courtesy of a 2-1 win over Udinese. The match turned on a world-class penalty save from Wojciech Szczęsny immediately after Robin van Persie had cancelled out Antonio Di Natale‘s first half opener.

Arsenal welcomed their captain van Persie back from his one-match European suspension, but injuries forced Arsène Wenger into changing half of the back four which kept a clean sheet in last week’s first leg victoryJohan Djourou and Carl Jenkinson replaced Laurent Koscielny (back) and Kieran Gibbs (hamstring), with Bacary Sagna switching to left back. Emmanuel Frimpong was given the nod over Tomáš Rosický to help shore up midfield.

Szczęsny

Jenkinson– Djourou – Vermaelen – Sagna

Song – Frimpong

Ramsey

Gervinho– van Persie – Walcott

Di Natale cancels out Arsenal’s first-leg advantage

On a hot and humid evening, both sides made a bright start to an open game played at a rapid tempo. Udinese repeatedly threatened with rapid counter-attacks down both flanks. Pablo Armero and Antonio Di Natale saw efforts rebound off Wojciech Szczęsny‘s left-hand post in the first quarter of the game.

Walcott had Arsenal's best chance of the first half (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Going forward, Arsenal played with more confidence than they have done so far this season. Theo Walcott and Gervinho worked the channels both inside and outside full backs Joel Ekstrand and Neuton, providing willing and early support for van Persie and creating a handful of chances in and around the edge of the box. Having had a couple of early sighters, Gervinho squared for Walcott seven yards out, who was brilliantly denied by Samir Handanović, just as he had done in the closing moments at the Emirates last week. The Slovenian keeper then got up quickly to block van Persie’s follow-up. Udinese marched straight upfield, and Szczęsny had to stand tall to block Di Natale’s effort from a tight angle.

Both sides were threatening, but it was the home side who made the breakthrough in the 39th minute. Di Natale did not have a red shirt within three yards of him – he had peeled off the back of the ball-watching Johan Djourou – as Giampiero Pinzi dinked a delightful cross into the box. Serie A’s top scorer in the past two season still had a lot to do, but he sent a delicate looping header beyond the reach of Szczęsny from 13 yards.

Arsenal had shaded the first half in terms of possession and matched Udinese in terms of chances, but went in at the interval a goal down. A familiar story.

Arsenal rewarded for staying positive

Arsenal’s response was to send on Tomáš Rosický in place of Frimpong. It would have been all too easy for the visitors to retreat back into their shell, but they started the second half as positively as they had the first, dominating the early exchanges. Van Persie sent over one delicious free kick which only needed a touch. Walcott ‘s attempted curler from 25 yards lacked the bend and pace needed to inconvenience Handanović. But then Gervinho, popping up this time on the left flank, jinked and wriggled his way down to the byline and squeezed the ball across the face of goal where van Persie smashed it into the net from point-blank range.

Szczęsny's magnificent penalty save was pivotal (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The all-important away goal gave Arsenal some much-needed breathing space as it meant Udinese now needed to score twice. However, that breath was soon being held again as Thomas Vermaelen was harshly adjudged to have handled from a corner and the referee pointed to the spot.

Di Natale took the ball blasted it high to Szczęsny’s right. The giant Polish keeper guessed correctly, but it still required a reflexive thrust of his left hand to paw the ball up and over the bar. It was every inch the equal of the save made by another Arsenal stopper, David Seaman, for England against Scotland at Euro 96. Magnificent.

Having survived one major scare, it was simply not in Arsenal’s DNA to shut up shop and defend, and they continued to press forward. Gervinho’s mazy dribble and shot was harmlessly deflected. And then Sagna sent Walcott scampering free beyond Mehdi Benatia. The Moroccan defender was never going to catch the England winger, who raced forward and this time made no mistake in beating Handanović.

Game over. After an almighty scare, the Champions League proper awaits. And Wenger’s young side can travel to Old Trafford on Sunday with a spring in their step. They did themselves proud tonight with a performance of determination and maturity which bodes well for the future.

Post-match reaction and analysis

When asked by ITV after the game how he felt, Arsène Wenger said:

It’s relief, of course, as we didn’t want to go out. And pride as well, as we were backs to the wall at half-time and we responded very well in the second half.

Since the beginning of the season, when we’ve finished with 11 players we’ve always won the game.

He was delighted with his players’ display:

[They showed that] under pressure they can respond with football and remain calm and composed on the ball, and try to play like we can play. They showed great belief in the way we want to play football.

Finally, when asked whether he would make any signings in the remaining days of the transfer window, he pointed out the club’s long injury list but cagily admitted:

There may be signings, but I cannot give you any names tonight.

Ever since last season’s Carling Cup final defeat, questions have been raised over the desire and attitude of a squad which slid out of title contention to finish fourth with alarming ease. The departures of Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri and Gaël Clichy then ignited further concerns over the depth and talent of the squad. Those questions still remain and need addressing before the transfer market closes next week, but the nucleus of a new Arsenal generation is clearly there for all to see after by far the team’s best 90 minutes of this fledgling season.

Jenkinson already looks like a typical Wenger signing - young, technically solid and with bags of potential (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

In the increasingly convincing 21-year old Szczęsny, Wenger may have found a dominating goalkeeper for the next 15 years. He continues to grow in stature with every passing game, unaffected by the Carling Cup final error which might have crushed a lesser player. Two summer signings, Gervinho and Jenkinson, have also made an immediate and impressive impact. The Ivorian winger – my man of the match – was the difference-maker here. He possesses wonderful close control allied to his directness, is a handful on both flanks and appears to have settled into the side immediately. The young full back, who was playing non-league football on loan this time last year, has grown before our eyes in the space of a week. He has good positional sense in defence and a sense of purpose venturing forward – in short, he looks like a proper modern-day full back. Van Persie clearly benefited from the improved support offered by both Gervinho and Walcott, who again looked lively when given the chance to run beyond a defence at full tilt. And Frimpong was solidly imposing before half-time, while Rosický was purposeful both with the ball and in the tackle after the interval.

The defence had a few worrying moments – there remains a tendency to be caught out by quick balls into the channels behind the full backs – but grew as the game progressed and never buckled. Offensively, the regular switching of positions across the front three – a feature of all four matches to date – shows signs of becoming increasingly effective, especially when employed by the kind of mobile and energetic trio Arsenal fielded in this game.

It is impossible to understate how important Champions League qualification is for the short-term prosperity of the club. For one thing, the baying (and growing) hordes screaming for the heads of Wenger and the board on a silver platter served with a delicate redcurrant reduction can be held at arm’s length for a while longer. More importantly, the club’s perceived and financial status as one of Europe’s premier clubs remains intact. The trap-door to the Europa League would have come with a financial penalty upwards of £25m in terms of lost Champions League revenue, a shortfall which would have had to be recovered from the transfer account in order to balance the books.

As a result, Arsenal would have been forced to cut their cloth accordingly, just as Liverpool were forced to do at the beginning of last season before the club was sold. And, of course, a double whammy would have come into force without the lure of Champions League football. Even with a fresh injection of cash this summer, Liverpool have had to pay over the odds (in terms of both transfer fees and wages) to attract players to compensate for their absence from Europe’s premier competition. That is the dilemma Arsenal would have faced: a reduced (though hardly tiny) budget for a club less attractive to potential signings than it had been a week ago. It would have been a tough pill to swallow for fans who have become accustomed to so much better in recent years.

As it stands, however, Arsenal retain their place at Europe’s top table. Nonetheless, despite the encouraging performance here it is a long road back to the very top and there are no easy short-cuts. Wenger’s transfer market moves in the coming week remain critical, but at least he still has his budget completely intact. The players have fulfilled their part of the bargain. Two – ideally three – players of proven quality, and Arsenal can consider themselves back in the running for honours this season. Over to you, Arsène. Time to spend some f***ing money.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

8 Responses to Szczęsny gives Arsenal 25 million reasons to be happy

  1. OMGArsenal says:

    Tim……..while I don’t agree with everything you wrote………it was for the most part a fair assessment of the current squad. It was exciting and encouraging to see the kids step up and prove their doubters wrong, at least for the moment. I have no illusions about the future. with our horrendous injury record, the crappy officiating we often get in the EPL and our inexperienced but eager new faces, we face an up-hill battle to remain in the top 4. Based on tonight’s display, especially in the 2nd half, we can expect that Arsenal will never be out of it and if they get the reinforcements needed, i agree they could be the dark horse this season in the EPL and maybe even the CL.

    • Tim says:

      On the whole, I think we’re not quite as bad as many were fearing after the opening games, but still some way short of where we want to be despite tonight’s result. It’s important not to panic-buy now. In Gervinho and Walcott, I think we have a good wide pairing but could do with some additional depth. I wouldn’t say no to Hazard, but a solid back-up would be okay too, remembering we still have Arshavin (at least for now). Frimpong is clearly ready to understudy Song, and M’Vila’s potential arrival would push him back down the order. I would still make a CB my top priority, followed by a central striker (assuming Bendtner will be sold), and then a creative midfielder. I can live without a holding midfielder, although of course we will need cover for both Song and Gervinho (and possibluy Chamakh) when it comes to the African Cup of Nations. Overall, I’d say what we need right now is a combination of starters and squad players – we are dangerously thin right now in some areas.

  2. mrshev says:

    I thought we played really well, with a lot of verve and some wonderful, crisp passing. My only real worry was that although we were penetrating with a lot of width there never seemed to be any personnel in the 18yd box. I sometimes worried where the goals were going to come from. But Rosický, I think, transformed the side and freed up Walcott and Van Persie to probe the defence and we looked very dangerous in the second half.

    I feel sorry for Wenger – and Arsenal to a certain extent – as they are running a successful club and business within a sustainable model. Many clubs in the EPL cannot rival Arsenal’s books…but. There does come a point when you do need to invest in more than prospects and potentials and buy some out-and-out quality – otherwise the business model will not work any more as the club will miss out on the Champions League.

    I do like our keeper (and I bet Ferguson is gnashing his teeth that he missed out on yet another decent fella between the sticks) but we desperately need a couple of quality centre halves. We are a touch light in midfield but adequate and we need an extra striker. But there is only a few days left and like a Supermarket before a bank holiday weekend all that is left is stuff that nobody wants, is near it’s sell by date or is horrendously overpriced.

    My instinct is that no one will be bought.

    • Tim says:

      I think Wenger is too smart to know that reinforcements are essential – you only have to look at the number of outgoings (including loanees) versus signings to know that we can’t just plug the gap by promoting kids.

      But you’re absolutely right that there’s now a last day of the sales feel about the market, although historically many of the best (and worst) deals occur in the last 48 hours, such is the nature of the beast. I still think signings will happen – 3 at most, more likely 2 – although it would not surprise me at all if one was a squad player rather than a star. That would be no bad thing, in my opinion. I’m also expecting Bendtner to stay, at least until January. Again, not a bad thing.

      I think we’re heading towards a different style of play now, one more dependent on 3 mobile front men to create chances by running past defenders rather than a central deep-lying playmaker. A bit more like the old days with Pires and Freddie, in other words. No doubt the balance will shift again when Wilshere returns, but I think the adjustment is a good one if it means we will stretch defences a bit more. We shall see!

  3. Sean says:

    In that second half last night the team played true to their commitment to attractive football as they have for several seasons now, but added some of the grit and resolution that was always traditional for the Arsenal teams of the past. These were no ‘bottlers’, these were players prepared to stand up and be counted. And what a goalkeeper!

    • Tim says:

      I couldn’t agree more. I tweeted at half-time last night that the second half would be a time for heroes and leaders. We got both. It was wonderful to see the team start the second half so positively, when it would have been so easy for them to crawl into their shells and try to consolidate for 15 minutes. Outstanding attitude from all concerned – we can ask for no more than that, win or lose.

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