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How will Arsène Wenger spend his money?

In the wake of Arsenal‘s euphoric 3-1 aggregate victory over Udinese, manager Arsène Wenger now faces the equally testing challenge of signing reinforcements for a squad which has seen more outgoings than incomings this summer. With a transfer fund at his disposal which reports put at anywhere between £65m (mildly pessimistic) and £100m (wildly optimistic), the usually parsimonious Wenger has an unprecedented opportunity to add revamp his side in one fell swoop. But how many players should he buy, and where should he seek to strengthen?

It has been a summer of turmoil at the Emirates like no other in recent history. Arsenal fans are accustomed to off-season transfer sagas revolving around their top players – before Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri there was Juventus’s pursuit of Patrick Vieira, Barcelona’s wooing of Thierry Henry and the malcontent mercenary that is Emmanuel Adebayor. But never have Wenger’s decisions been scrutinised – and criticised – so vociferously, and never before has there been such a revolving door of player movements. Over the course of the summer the squad has been stripped of both quality (Fàbregas, Nasri, Gaël Clichy) and depth (Emmanuel Eboué, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and loanees Denilson, Carlos Vela and Kyle Bartley). And of Wenger’s four signings to date, two – winger Gervinho and right back Carl Jenkinson – have already been blooded, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Campbell sure to see action (at least in the Carling Cup) sooner rather than later.

But with a sackful of money (potential sellers will be rubbing their hands together with glee) and just one week to spend it (ditto), Wenger is unlikely to flood his dressing room with a rush of new names which will take time to integrate and will hinder the progress of up-and-coming youngsters such as Emmanuel Frimpong. So what can we realistically expect from him before the transfer window closes next Wednesday?

Goalkeeper

Almunia's days at the club appear numbered (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

At the end of last season many pundits identified this as a key area of need. Manuel Almunia may well be at the front of the queue for the exit, but with Wojciech Szczęsny growing in stature and exuding confidence and Łukasz Fabiański a capable and experienced backup, Arsenal appear more settled in their last line of defence than at any time since Jens Lehmann’s peak years. Szczęsny will commit errors from time to time – we should not expect perfection from such a young keeper – but has already demonstrated the talent and the mindset necessary to shrug off any setbacks.

It is difficult to see Fabiański settling for warming the bench behind his younger compatriot beyond this season – as an international with 18 caps he will surely need first team football somewhere – but that is a problem for next year, not this one.

Verdict: No activity, other than Almunia returning to Spain.

Defence

Cahill has been a long-term target for Arsenal

Injuries and the development of young players mask the fact that the nucleus of a good group already exists. On the flanks, Carl Jenkinson already looks to be a capable deputy for Bacary Sagna, while it is unlikely that Wenger will seek further cover for the injury-prone Kieran Gibbs beyond Armand Traoré.

Any new defensive signing will be a central player of substance, although whether this will be a ready-made partner for Thomas Vermaelen or a capable backup to enhance bench strength – which is currently provided by the brittle and inconsistent Johan Djourou, the seeimgly out-of-favour Sébastien Squillaci and youngster Ignasi Miquel – is less clear. We’ve all heard the links to Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka – my preference would be for the former, who is 25 rather than 29 – but Scott Dann or Christopher Samba are also distinct possibilities who would bring both a physical presence and valuable Premier League experience.

Verdict: Expect one arrival, but it may be a squad player rather than a starter.

Central midfield

Yann M'Vila (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are two distinct needs here – a holding player and a creative one. In the holding role, Arsenal have been closely linked to Rennes’ 21-year old Yann M’Vila in recent days. Six foot tall and physically imposing, he could provide steel to a midfield which has too often been lightweight in recent years. Rather than being a replacement for Alex Song, I would see him forming half of a midfield anchor pairing with Song (or Emmanuel Frimpong when the Cameroon international is called away to the Africa Cup of Nations), with Jack Wilshere taking the creative role in front of them.

In Wilshere’s absence Aaron Ramsey has appeared ill at ease being used as the creative fulcrum of the side. Tomáš Rosický or Andrey Arshavin could also fill in, although neither is ideal. Some genuine quality here would be most welcome – although it appears that an enquiry to Lille about Eden Hazard has been firmly rebuffed – but my suspicion is that Wenger will hope that Wilshere can stay fit and make do with what he already has when he is not.

Verdict: Wenger will strengthen one or the other, but probably not both. With a better defensive screen vital, I would focus on M’Vila to ensure depth in the critical holding role(s).

Wide midfield/attack

Will Lille be willing to sell Hazard as well as Gervinho? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

One of the reasons I think Wenger may pass on adding another creative central option is my perception that he is placing a greater emphasis on creating chances from wide positions this season. He already has the fitfully brilliant Theo Walcott and Gervinho has already shown signs of settling in immediately. Rosický and Arshavin can provide plenty of experience off the bench (as can the perenially injured Abou Diaby), while Ryo Miyaichi and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are more youthful and pacy alternatives. Gervinho’s former teammate Eden Hazard would be an ideal fit as he can play both centrally and out wide but, having already lost the Ivorian, Lille are understandably reluctant to sell so late in the window.

With early summer target Juan Mata now at Chelsea, I suspect Wenger is happy to stay with the balance of experience and youth he already has – although, like Song, he will lose Gervinho for the duration of the Africa Cup of Nations – with depth not a major issue here.

Verdict: Possible but unlikely, unless a star name becomes available. Well-stocked with both youth and experience.

Centre forward

Zárate has been linked with Arsenal, but would he add much to the squad?

Although new captain Robin van Persie is nothing short of world-class when fit and on form, he has never made more than 28 league appearances in a single season for Arsenal, and has played fewer than half the games in two of the past four years. With Nicklas Bendtner agitating for a move and Marouane Chamakh bereft of goals and confidence, an injury to the skipper could leave Arsenal dangerously short of a central striker who can lead the line effectively. Walcott, for all his pace and goalscoring ability, is not that kind of player, and neither is the on-loan Carlos Vela.

Recent reports have linked Arsenal with a move for 24-year old Lazio and Argentina striker Mauro Zárate, who had an undistinguished load spell at Birmingham three years ago. At just 5-foot-9 and with a record of less than a goal every four games for Lazio, he is not an obvious solution for the problem. One obvious candidate who is, however, will never return to the club he left in acrimonious circumstances two years ago: Emmanuel Adebayor, who is currently surplus to requirements at Manchester City and seems most likely to move to Tottenham if he stays in the Premier League. Wenger may choose to stick with what he has, hoping that either Bendtner stays for another year or Chamakh regains his form, and relying on Walcott, Gervinho or Joel Campbell in the event of injuries.

Verdict: Essential if Bendtner departs, otherwise only a nice-to-have third priority after a defender and a midfielder, with a purchase only taking place if it is for a top-class finisher.

Of course, there is no knowing for sure what the team will look like on September 1st, but here’s my view of the likely starting XI, based on my own assumption that Arsenal will sign Cahill and M’Vila.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Cahill – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – M’Vila

Wilshere

Gervinho – van Persie – Walcott

With a Carling Cup/second XI of:

Fabiański

Jenkinson – Djourou/Miquel – Koscielny/Squillaci – Traoré

Frimpong/Eastmond – Ramsey

Rosický/Diaby

Oxlade-Chamberlain/Campbell – Bendtner/Chamakh – Arshavin/Miyaichi

Of course, I would love it if the club were able to add more than just those two players, but Wenger’s belief in his squad and the limited timescales make a last-minute spree unlikely – although I would not be surprised if he picked up a couple of handy squad players to improve cover in key positions. Anything less than two more signings will be a major disappointment. However, if Arsène wants to break open the piggy bank to throw Eden Hazard and one or two others into the mix as well, I won’t complain.

Hold on to your hats – it’s going to be an interesting week.

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Four questions as the Cesc Fàbregas saga finally ends

It is finally over. After a soap opera-style saga which has dragged on across two summers – and featured one last twist in the tail on Friday – the curtain came down last night on the Arsenal career of Cesc Fàbregas after eight years, 303 games, 57 goals and countless moments of audacious skill which are simply beyond the compass of all but a tiny handful of his peers.

It is now time to look forwards, to see how Arsène Wenger spends the transfer proceeds to replace both Fàbregas and the soon-to-be-departed Samir Nasri. But, setting aside the emotion associated with the loss of the club’s best player in his prime, here are four key questions which have been troubling me over the last few days.

1. Why only £35m?

Image courtesy of arsenal.com

On the face of it, a deal which values the 24-year old Fàbregas at a maximum of £35m (about a quarter of it in add-ons) seems like a bargain, particularly when you consider that Liverpool paid the same amount for Andy Carroll, or that Manchester United managed to wangle £80m out of Real Madrid for Cristiano Ronaldo.

Despite the player still having four years left on his contract, Arsenal were certainly hampered by the fact that Barcelona were the only buyer in town and that Fàbregas so clearly wanted to return home. In our modern post-Bosman football world, it is very difficult to stop players getting what they want.

For sure, Fàbregas’s fee might have been pushed up above £40m – a more reasonable valuation, surely – if another big club had come in for him. But what would have been the point? Cesc had made it clear he was only ever going to leave Arsenal for one other team, and for anyone else to have tried – even the seemingly bottomless pockets of Real Madrid or Manchester City – would only have been an exercise in futility and embarrassment.

The reality is Arsenal were always stuck between a rock and a hard place, and had little to gain by holding on to a disgruntled player and holding out for a few million more. As part of the deal, they will receive 50% of any subsequent fee should Fàbregas leave Barcelona – although obviously the Catalan club have included this clause on the assumption that Cesc will either retire with his hometown club or leave for a pittance in the final years of his career.

As for the 48-hour delay, Barcelona – in particular, a number of their players – jumped the gun on Friday in announcing the completion of the deal in violation of non-disclosure agreements. Such terms are standard practice in any deals (whether in football or more generally in business), to ensure that news is formally announced in a timely and organised fashion. Ignoring such agreements is bad form (and can in theory have legal consequences), so for Arsenal to then stall the announcement until after their opening game at Newcastle was not unreasonable. A little petty, perhaps, but fair enough given Barcelona’s flouting of due process.

Robbie Keane is another rare example of a team who has returned to the club who sold him (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

2. Will Barcelona effectively pay themselves a sell-on fee?

Of course, Arsenal will probably not receive all of the fee. I stand to be corrected on this one, but my understanding is that part of the compensation agreement between the two clubs when Fàbregas moved from Spain to England (for a nominal fee of just £500,000) was the inclusion of a sell-on fee in the event of a future transfer.

This is common practice in football, but what is less usual – though by no means unique – is for the initial seller to then be the subsequent buyer. (I can think of two recent examples of this occurring, both involving Tottenham strikers: Jermain Defoe‘s moves to and from Porstmouth, and Robbie Keane‘s short-lived transfer to Liverpool.)

Does this mean that Barcelona will receive some of their own money back in the form of a sell-on fee? If so, it’s an unusual little windfall for them, and somewhat galling for Arsenal to have to pay Barcelona for buying a player off them.

3. What is the point of a loyalty bonus?

Let’s be clear about this. I have no doubt that Fàbregas will always retain a fondness for Arsenal. But at the same time, nobody should be fooled into thinking that he did not slap in a transfer request out of a sense of loyalty to the club. The motivation was purely a financial one.

In common with many other footballer deals, Cesc had a loyalty clause which guaranteed him a bonus payment if his contract – which still had four years to run – was broken by the club. By engineering a move without the need for a transfer request, Fàbregas will activate this loyalty clause and receive a bonus thought to be worth £1m for each remaining year of his contract (i.e. £4m in total). In effect, it will offset the seemingly altruistic ‘pay cut’ he has reportedly agreed to take to facilitate the deal. Swings and roundabouts.

It’s not so much a loyalty bonus as one for not showing overt disloyalty, isn’t it? A player can do whatever else is in his power to force through a transfer – openly court another club, refuse to play or concoct phantom injuries – but in contractual terms is considered ‘loyal’ unless he puts his dissatisfaction formally in writing.

I won’t condemn Fàbregas for doing whatever he has done behind the scenes to oil the wheels. He is hardly the first to have done so, and he will not be the last. But it seems like a mighty odd way for football clubs to incentivise their players.

EDIT: Fàbregas has reportedly waived his loyalty bonus to help facilitate the move – an indication of his determination to complete the transfer, but also a sign that his primary motivation was not a financial one. It is a refreshing gesture in a world where too many players claim not to be forcing a transfer on the basis of money, while at the same time doubling their salary.

4. Where now for Arsenal?

The message from Arsenal’s travelling fans at Newcastle was loud and clear: “Spend some f***ing money!”

Wilshere will carry the burden of being Fabregas's successor (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

It is easy to predict doom and gloom for Arsenal – and many fans have done exactly that – but it is also not the first time the club has sold its captain on the eve of a new season. Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry were both considered talismanic and irreplaceable, but each was already past the peak years of their career and the team readjusted and moved forwards without them. However, in the case of Fàbregas (and Nasri), he is approaching his best years and although Jack Wilshere is his heir apparent, the squad looks more threadbare than after the previous departures. The despondency is understandable, although it will hopefully be mitigated by some top quality signings before the end of the month.

Regardless of the circumstances of his protracted departure, I will have nothing but good memories of Cesc Fàbregas. His first-team debut in the League Cup against Rotherham. (I was at Highbury that night, and I remember commenting after the match that the then 16-year old simply looked like he belonged in such exalted company.) A coming-of-age performance in a 1-0 victory against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. His late long-range winner against AC Milan. The audacious dribble and goal from the halfway line against Tottenham at the Emirates.

But now it is time to look forwards.

Wenger faces his biggest challenge over the next fortnight before the transfer window closes. Reinforcements are needed in several positions – a tough central defender, holding midfielder, creative midfielder and goalscorer are all high on the shopping list – but time is against him, as is the fact that any potential sellers will be fully aware that Arsenal are (a) in desperate need and (b) flush with cash, which can only hinder negotiations. However, he at least has ample funds to spend on this occasion, a luxury which has not always been afforded him in recent years.

The fans’ short-term confidence, the club’s medium-term prospects and indeed Wenger’s future beyond this season will all pivot on what happens immediately after the Fàbregas saga.

Never a dull moment.

History repeats itself as Barton’s bite neuters toothless Arsenal

Newcastle 0 Arsenal 0

Gervinho sent off 76

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It may be a new season, but Arsenal‘s goalless draw at Newcastle brought with it many echoes of the last campaign as history repeated itself in too many negative ways to comfort fans hoping that Arsène Wenger‘s side will turn over a new leaf in this campaign.

Koscielny's first half effort was as close as Arsenal came to breaking the deadlock at St James' Park (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Echoes of the past

On the opening weekend of last season a patchwork Arsenal side missing several starters after a gruelling World Cup summer travelled north to play Liverpool, and scraped a draw after an insipid performance in which debutant Laurent Koscielny was sent off. Yesterday a patchwork Arsenal side missing several key starters after a gruelling summer of increasingly bitter transfer negotiations travelled north to play Newcastle, and scraped a draw after an insipid performance in which debutant Gervinho was sent off.

Yet again, Barton found himself at the centre of the game's two most controversial incidents

Just as in the equivalent game last season – the remarkable 4-4 draw in which the home side recovered from a four-goal deficit in the final quarter of the game (match report: Four-Toon favours the brave) – the game hinged on incidents involving the controversy magnet that is Joey Barton. In the previous game, Barton had provoked a reaction from Abou Diaby which saw the Frenchman sent off and ignited Newcastle’s comeback. Here Barton provoked a slap from Gervinho which resulted in the Ivorian seeing red.

And, just as they had in the concluding game of last season at Fulham, Arsenal’s normally faithful travelling support ended the game with a chorus of “Spend some f***ing money!” That was a clear reference to the need to strengthen the squad given the impending departures of Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri, which are expected to raise in the region of £60m. With Gaël Clichy already gone, Nicklas Bendtner and Emmanuel Eboué nearing the exit door, and question marks hanging over the future of a number of others, to say it has been an unsettling summer at the Emirates would be an understatement.

As an indication of how much things have changed in the last 12 months, it’s worth comparing the starting line-up at St James’ Park to the one which opened last season at Anfield. Yesterday’s XI was:

Szczęsny

Sagna – Koscielny – Vermaelen – Gibbs

Song – Rosický

Gervinho  – Ramsey – Arshavin

van Persie

Only four of these – Koscielny, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen and Andrey Arshavin – also started at Anfield a year ago, an indication of Arsenal’s transitional nature right now.

Barton takes centre stage as both teams fluff their lines

Arsenal had the better of a sterile first half in which they dominated possession without creating much. In 45 minutes, only an early Tomáš Rosický shot, a Koscielny effort which was bundled off the line and a sweet sand-wedge of a through ball from Arshavin which Robin van Persie could not quite bring down did anything to quicken the pulse. Gervinho regularly popped up on both flanks to trouble both Newcastle full backs, Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor, with his pacy, direct style. And Rosický, in a deeper central role, looked incisive and always keen to move the ball forward quickly. But too often the final ball was lacking as the visitors struggled to shake off the early season cobwebs against opponents who offered little attacking threat themselves. In truth, although it was mostly one-way traffic and much of Arsenal’s play was neat and tidy enough, it was pretty stultifying fare.

Song's stamp on Barton escaped on-field punishment, but he is likely to be penalised retrospectively (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The second period, however, was even less inspiring, as both sides ran out of ideas and puff. Van Persie whipped a wicked free kick a fraction over and substitute Theo Walcott poked a shot straight at Tim Krul, but the half was defined by two incidents in which Barton, inevitably, was a central protagonist.

On the hour Alex Song, who had already been booked, reacted to a perceived bad tackle from Barton by slyly stamping on him. None of the officials saw it, but replays suggested it was deliberate and a retrospective three-match ban is the most likely outcome. If applied, Song would miss the matches against Liverpool, Manchester United and Swansea.

A quarter of an hour later, Gervinho charged into the box and tumbled after a challenge with Cheik Tiote. Replays suggested the Ivorian might have been brushed by Tiote but, with the ball still in play, Barton grabbed him and roughly hauled him back to his feet, no doubt accompanied by some choice words in his ear. As players from both sides rushed in to separate them, Gervinho caught Barton with the slightest of slaps, which sent the Newcastle player collapsing to the ground clutching his face. Barton later admitted on Twitter that “I went down easy, no doubt.”

Gervinho spoilt a promising debut with the slap which saw him red-carded (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Steven Taylor indicated to referee Peter Walton that an elbow had been used – remarkable given that the slap had happened directly behind Taylor’s head and therefore out of his line of sight. (Taylor later admitted that he had seen nothing.) Nonetheless, I suspect Walton had already seen enough to make up his own mind and – correctly – sent Gervinho off for violent conduct, meaning a three-match ban. Whether he should have issued more than a yellow to Barton is debatable, and arguably he should also have awarded a penalty for Barton physically handling an opponent while the ball was still live. Suffice to say that neither Barton nor Taylor enhanced their reputations here. (Barton’s history is well known, but Taylor also has ‘previous’, having famously handled a ball on the goalline against Aston Villa in 2007 and then collapsed theatrically in a failed attempt to avoid punishment.)

Thereafter, Arsenal were content to keep things tight at the back and escape with a point. Despite their man advantage, Newcastle created nothing of note in the final 15 minutes. A draw was the most either side deserved. Arsenal need more sharpness and, at the very least, Jack Wilshere‘s incision. Newcastle, aside from set-pieces and their impressive debutant Yohan Cabaye, need more quality all across their front line.

Post-match reaction and analysis

After the game, Arsène Wenger commented on Gervinho’s sending off:

I think I saw two yellows or two reds but not one yellow and one red. I don’t know [if it was a penalty]. I wasn’t close enough to see it so we will have to watch it again.

Overall, he admitted his side had lacked sharpness in the final third of the pitch, but was pleased with a much-maligned defence which barely gave the home side a sniff at goal:

I thought we had a solid performance and were in control. They organised not to concede goals, defended well and it was very difficult for us because we played a team who was highly focused to defend. The regret is that we missed something in the final third and in the speed of our passing. But overall we had a good performance. I can’t remember giving Newcastle a chance at goal and, away from home, you have to give credit to our team for that.

When asked about potential transfers in and out, he refused to give anything away:

I am not against spending money if the players we buy can improve our squad. We have a big squad and if some players leave we will try to bring players in. We request top quality and we are not scared to spend money.

We are, on both fronts [regarding the Fàbregas and Nasri transfers], in no-man’s land. At the moment, they are players of Arsenal Football Club.

It is all too easy to dwell on the negatives from this performance. Arsenal struggled to break down a resolute Newcastle defence and certainly missed the guile of Wilshere and Fàbregas. Although Gervinho, Rosický and Arshavin were enterprising enough, they never quite unlocked the home side’s defence, as a result of which Robin van Persie had one of his quieter games. And, not for the first time, Arsenal players – on this occasion Song and Gervinho – allowed themselves to be wound up by an opponent far too easily. It is a weakness that other teams will not fail to exploit, and to exhibit such obvious petulance only creates a rod for the team’s back in future games. In the shorter term, both are likely to miss the key games against Liverpool and United, although at least they will be available for the critical Champions League qualifier against Udinese.

No doubt the internet forums and phone-in shows will now be inundated with disgruntled Arsenal fans in a heightened state of hysteria. They would do well to remember that last season’s opening performance at Liverpool was even worse than this one, but that the team did manage to turn things around. There are still 37 games remaining, and a significant transfer kitty to be utilised.

Szczęsny looked decisive and commanding on high balls (image courtesy of arsenal.,com)

The positives should not be ignored either. Although it comes with the caveat that they will face tougher tests than this, the defence was rock solid. Wojciech Szczęsny dealt positively with crosses and barely had a save to make in the entire game, while Vermaelen and Koscielny were solid in the tackle and shackled Newcastle’s attackers well.

Going forward, Gervinho’s directness and pace turned defenders regularly, a quality too often lacking in Arsenal’s play in recent years, although his final delivery was a little off. Aaron Ramsey and Arshavin were eager forward runners, while Song was disciplined enough to hold station in front of the back four for the most part. And it was gratifying to see Rosický revelling in the central role in which he featured during pre-season. For all his injury and goalscoring woes, he remains a classy player whose first instinct is always to pass or run forward. A target of many fans’ frustrations last season, he could be an important contributor this season, lending an experienced head to a young midfield.

Arsenal now face a critical fortnight. The Champions League qualifier against Udinese – the first leg of which is on Tuesday – is intertwined with key league fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United. And Wenger will look to bolster his squad with the expected £60m windfall from the sales of Fàbregas and Nasri, with the added difficulty that any prospective sellers will be fully aware that Arsenal have money to spend and a desperate need for reinforcements. Now is not the time for panic. We will not really know Arsenal’s competitive health until the end of the month, but it will make for an agonising period for fans of the club.

Sun setting on title challenge as Arsenal fire blanks against Blackburn

Arsenal 0 Blackburn 0

It is by no means over yet, but a third successive Premier League draw at home to struggling Blackburn inflicted further damage on Arsenal‘s title challenge on a day when Manchester United extended their lead at the top of the table to seven points. Crucially, with eight games still remaining in this most unpredictable of seasons, the Gunners are no longer in control of their destiny. United can now afford to lose at the Emirates and still secure the title by winning their other games.

Arsenal were able to field their strongest line up for several weeks. Theo Walcott returned from the ankle injury he sustained against Stoke in February – Arsenal’s last league win – while Alex Song was also restored to the starting line-up. Abou Diaby and captain Cesc Fàbregas were also back from their respective injuries, but started on the bench.

Almunia

Sagna – Squillaci – Koscielny – Clichy

Song – Wilshere

Nasri

Walcott – van Persie – Arshavin

Neither team entered this match in good form, with Arsenal winless in four and the visitors without a victory in their last six games. Both, however, had recovered from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in their previous fixtures a fortnight ago (Arsenal at West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn at home to Blackpool). At Ewood Park in August, goals by Walcott and Andrey Arshavin had given Arsenal a 2-1 win.

A fast start goes unrewarded and Almunia has a double nightmare

Unlike in recent games, Arsenal started the game brightly and could have scored three times within six minutes. Song missed with an early effort, Ryan Nelsen was relieved to see his miscue go wide and Walcott saw his shot from a tight angle saved well by Paul Robinson. In those early stages, with Samir Nasri probing in the middle of the field and Arshavin and Walcott effervescent on the flanks, Arsenal promised to settle the nerves with an early goal.

It never materialised, however, and their rhythm was disrupted by a pair of injury stoppages. First Martin Olsson went in hard on Bacary Sagna in a 40:60 challenge and came off the worse of the two. And then Nasri clashed heads with Nelsen, resulting in an egg-sized bruise which required bandaging.

A clean sheet did nothing to disguise another nightmare performance by Almunia (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

As Arsenal’s momentum dissipated, so Blackburn gradually gained a foothold in the game. They wasted a couple of free kicks in dangerous positions, but their best chances came courtesy of a jittery Manuel Almunia. The Spanish goalkeeper, still bereft of confidence, twice nearly gifted the visitors the opening goal. First Laurent Koscielny got a toe onto a low 25-yard effort from Olsson. Despite the deflection, Almunia appeared to have the shot well covered only for the ball to bounce wildly off his fingertips and just wide of his left-hand post. Then, in first half stoppage time, Robinson launched a long free kick into the Arsenal box. Almunia charged off his line, only to be easily beaten by Steven N’Zonzi, whose header looped wide.

After their early surge, Arsenal only had one other significant chance before half-time. Jack Wilshere dribbled at the heart of the Blackburn defence and continued his run into the box to get on the end of Nasri’s cross, only to make a complete mess of his shot with the goal begging. Following a bright start, they had rather petered out.

Lots of possession, a red card but still no goals

The second half continued where the first had left off, with Arsenal exerting pressure on a robust and well-organised Blackburn, who refused to buckle and were content to rely on the occasional counter-attack.

Even the arrival of Fàbregas was not enough to break the deadlock (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Ten minutes in, Wilshere was sent clear by Nasri but opted to cross instead of shooting and won a corner. Nasri swung it into the danger area, where it was met by Koscielny whose header, though well directed, lacked the power to evade Robinson.

Soon after Arshavin gave way to Fàbregas, and the captain nearly had an immediate impact, lofting a delicate chip forward which was just a yard too heavy for Nasri and Robin van Persie. Shortly after, a van Persie effort was well held by the Blackburn keeper. But for all Arsenal’s possession and territorial advantage, Robinson was rarely called into serious action.

That looked set to change, however, when N’Zonzi was issued a straight red after a two-footed challenge on Koscielny which upended the French defender. It left Blackburn a man short for the last 15 minutes.

Bendtner nearly snatched all three points with an injury-time header (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Arsenal drove on in search of the breakthrough, with Nicklas Bendtner reinforcing a forward line to which Marouane Chamakh had already been added. Fàbregas fired over. Chamakh saw an effort blocked by Olsson. Bendtner headed wide. But to no avail.

They did not stop trying, however. In injury time, a van Persie corner was met by a towering header by Bendtner, only for Michel Salgado to bundle the ball off the line. And with virtually the last action of the game, the Dutch striker headed over from five yards out.

It was not enough to rescue a win, however, and a disappointed Arsenal will rue another two dropped points. Did they dominate enough to have won the game? Yes. Did they deserve to do so? Probably. But were they robbed by a freak of fate? Not really. In truth, although they started and finished with a flourish, they had not mounted enough of a consistent threat to brandish a sense of righteous injustice. They have played worse and won this season – but they did not play well enough to win this match.

Post-match reaction and analysis

In his post-game press conference, Arsène Wenger expressed his frustration at his side’s lacklustre performance:

It was a frustrating performance because we had no pace in our game. Overall it was a flat performance with a lack of energy level, a lack of sharpness.

It is difficult to identify one special thing. I felt we started OK and after our game became flat. Very few players looked to have the resources to put the pace up in the game. Part of it is down to the fact that Blackburn defended well but I don’t put the majority of reasons down to that. I feel it is more down to our poor offensive performance today.

He acknowledged that the team will have to step up a gear if they are to rekindle their fading title aspirations:

We have to focus on our performance, not on Man United. Before we speak about the title I believe we have to come back to a good level of performance. Then we can speak about that. But we have to raise our level.

It is hard to feel anything after this game other than bitter disappointment. Six points have now been dropped in the past three games – home to Sunderland, away at West Brom and now here – all of which were eminently winnable. And this performance highlighted and summarised all Arsenal’s frailties in microcosm. There have been too many instances in recent years where Arsenal have failed to win games they have dominated, and not enough where they have got more than they deserved from a poor performance – Wolves away being one of the few exceptions this season. The opposite has been true for United, who demonstrated in their comeback from two goals down at Upton Park earlier in the day that an indomitable will to win can overcome even the most mediocre of performances. On such fine margins – and really we are only taking about that final one per cent here – are titles won and lost.

Almunia aside, nobody played particularly poorly today. But neither did they play well. Walcott and Arshavin were bright early on, Song was energetic in patrolling the central areas before picking up a knock and Wilshere, though perhaps a bit leggy after his exertions with England, never stopped pushing forward. But Arsenal’s final pass and shooting lacked accuracy, as it too often has at critical moments this season.

As I have said before, the squad is more in need of fine-tuning than an overhaul. On their day and with the full first XI available, Arsenal are the best team in the country. The quality of the second-string players needs addressing, certainly. And although it is too easy and convenient to question the desire and commitment of the squad – a view I do not subscribe to – it is hard to escape the feeling that there is something lacking in their psyche. For me, that missing ingredient is the mean streak which players such as Patrick Vieira and Martin Keown possessed in abundance, and which United and Chelsea both have in players such as Vidic, Rooney, Terry and Drogba. All too often, this group of Arsenal players come across as altogether too nice – but all it will take is the addition of one or two players with a nasty side to alter the mindset of the team.

The Premier League title has been there for Arsenal to wrestle out of the hands of United and Chelsea all season, and no matter what happens over the next few weeks there is a lot to be proud of, even if that proves to be not quite enough to break the club’s six-year trophy drought.

The sun has not yet gone down on Arsenal’s title challenge – but with every dropped point their prospects grow ever darker. Their margin for error has now been reduced to zero.

Arsenal left pondering what might have been as dominant Barcelona progress

Barcelona 3 Arsenal 1 (Barcelona win 4-3 on aggregate)

Messi 45, 69 pen, Xavi 71; Busquets (og) 53

While conceding three goals and without mustering a single shot in the entire game, Arsenal somehow pushed Barcelona all the way despite Robin van Persie‘s farcical sending off. They could even have won it late on had Nicklas Bendtner‘s control not failed him. But the reality is the better side won, and the visitors were grateful to substitute goalkeeper Manuel Almunia for keeping them in the tie to the very end.

Buoyed by the return from injury of both captain Cesc Fàbregas and, surprisingly, van Persie, Arsenal fielded a stronger line-up than many fans had been expecting at the weekend. Abou Diaby was preferred to Denilson in midfield, while the surprise inclusion of  Tomáš Rosický over Andrey Arshavin indicated a recognition of the need for high defensive discipline and workrate at the Camp Nou.

Szczęsny

Sagna – Djourou – Koscielny – Clichy

Diaby – Wilshere

Fàbregas

Rosický – van Persie – Nasri

The omens for Arsenal after their 2-1 first leg win were mixed. On the one hand, they had won just one (and lost three) of their six previous meetings with the Catalans, and entered this match having failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 15 Champions League away games. On the plus side, they had previously qualified on all but one of the 15 occasions on which they had won the first leg at home in European competition.

A solid first half let down by a calamitous finish

Arsenal defended stoutly during an opening period played almost entirely in their half of the field, but were let down in stoppage time by a moment of madness from, of all people, Fàbregas.

With nothing sticking up front whenever the ball was played out of defence, the sum total of Arsenal’s first half threat was a low cross from the right by Rosický which was a yard too far in front of van Persie. That really was it. Instead, the visitors knuckled down to the task of protecting their own goal in the manner that so many visiting teams to the Emirates have done in recent years.

Koscielny had an outstanding game, despite conceding a penalty (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

The centre back pairing of Johan Djourou and Laurent Koscielny were particularly outstanding. Time and again one of them would make a perfect covering tackle just when it appeared Arsenal’s defences would be breached. But on the one occasion when they did buckle, it had disastrous consequences. Koscielny fouled Pedro and was booked for his troubles. Dani Alves‘s 35-yard free kick was comfortably held by Wojciech Szczęsny, but the young Polish keeper dislocated a finger in the process, and had to be replaced by the much maligned Manuel Almunia.

Despite hogging both possession and territory, Barcelona struggled to break an unusually disciplined Arsenal down. They were unlucky not to be awarded a penalty on the half-hour mark when Lionel Messi was bundled over by Diaby’s late and clumsy challenge. David Villa scuffed a decent opportunity which rolled gently into Almunia’s hands, Adriano hit the outside of a post from an acute angle and Messi shot straight at Almunia after a mazy dribble. But that was about it until deep into stoppage time at the end of the half.

Attempting to play out of defence, Fàbregas back-heeled the ball towards Jack Wilshere but Andrés Iniesta intercepted. He played in Messi, who calmly clipped the ball over the advancing Almunia before volleying it into the unguarded net. It was a finish of breathtaking quality which followed a moment of crass recklessness by the Arsenal captain. Instead of going in at half-time goalless and still ahead in the tie, Arsenal were suddenly behind on the away goals rule and facing an uphill battle.

Referee Busacca hands Barcelona the tie

Arsenal now needed a goal to regain the initiative in the tie, and their prayers were answered within eight minutes of the restart. Samir Nasri made a rare successful foray forward, taking on defenders and earning a corner. The Frenchman whipped in the kick himself, and as the ball cleared the leaping Diaby at the near post, it bounced off the unsuspecting Sergio Busquets into the Barcelona goal. 1-1, and just like that the pressure was all back on Barcelona.

Almunia gave a fine performance after coming off the bench (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

Almost immediately, Villa raced through on goal and would have equalised had Almunia not stayed big and strong as he rushed off his line to block. But two minutes later the tie swung inexorably in Barcelona’s favour. Van Persie, who had been booked shortly before half-time for a small slap on Alves, raced through on goal and fired a shot wide having not heard referee Massimo Busacca‘s whistle for offside amid the cacophony of whistles and jeers ringing round the stadium. But the Swiss official decided this constituted deliberate time-wasting, produced a second yellow card and sent the Dutch striker off. It was such a pernickety and officious decision that it surely cannot have been the right thing to do.

With their difficult mission now rendered all but impossible, Arsenal were forced to retreat and batten down the hatches as wave after wave of Barcelona attacks crashed against their massed defences. Villa was twice denied by brave saves by Almunia. Alves fired over from 15 yards. A second Barcelona goal was all but inevitable, but it did not arrive until the 69th minute. Iniesta ran straight at the heart of the Arsenal defence, Villa helped the ball on and Xavi coolly slotted home, aided by a small deflection off Bacary Sagna.

Bendtner squandered a late chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (image courtesy of arsenal.com)

At 2-1, the game was heading for extra time, but two minutes later that possibility was removed when Koscielny upended Pedro as he darted into the area and Messi casually rolled the penalty kick in after sending Almunia the wrong way.

Even at 3-1, the tie remained on a knife-edge, with Arsenal requiring just one goal to put them through. Arshavin and Bedntner arrived for Rosický and the struggling Fàbregas as Arsène Wenger threw caution to the winds. And it so nearly paid off. As Almunia continued to defy Barcelona almost single-handed, Arshavin stole the ball in the Barcelona half and immediately fed Wilshere, who measured a delightful flick with the outside of his left boot right into the path of the advancing Bendtner. But the Dane’s poor first touch allowed Javier Mascherano to get in a crucial saving tackle before he could test Victor Valdés one-on-one. On such small margins are knockout ties won and lost.

In the final analysis Arsenal were not good enough to beat the best team on the planet over two legs. There is no shame in that.

Post-match reaction and analysis

An angry Arsène Wenger was particularly upset over van Persie’s dismissal:

When he [referee Busacca] made the decision it was a very promising game, very interesting. That’s the regret. We lost against a very good Barcelona side, congratulations to them and good luck for the future. We have many regrets tonight because we didn’t expect to lose the game like that.

If you have played football at a certain level, you cannot understand the decision. I cannot imagine that someone who has played football, in a game of that importance, makes that decision at the moment he did. Even if he heard the whistle, I still don’t understand the decision. It killed a promising, fantastic football match. What for? If it’s a bad tackle and a second bookable offence, then OK.

When asked whether Arsenal would have won the game with 11 men, he replied:

Yes. I felt Barcelona gave a lot in the first half where we were completely dominated, I agree with that. But in the second half,you felt there was more space and, I knew, like in the first game, we would come back into the game. I am convinced we would have won this game.

And his initial assessment of Szczęsny’s injury was as follows:

[It’s] a dislocated finger. We have to check the tendon and see how much damage is done.

If it is a ruptured tendon, Szczęsny’s season could well be over.

Finally, when asked whether this was  a big blow to Arsenal’s prospects for the remainder of the season, he said:

How big is the blow? We don’t know. That depends on our response on Saturday at Manchester United.

In terms of tactical analysis, let’s start with the obvious: Barcelona dominated this second leg from start to finish. The statistics do not lie. The aggregate score may have been only 4-3, but Barcelona had 19 shots (ten on target) to none for Arsenal, and enjoyed 68% of total possession.

While Wenger and his team felt justifiably indignant over van Persie’s sending off, it must also be remembered they were the beneficiaries of two huge decisions – one in each leg – which went their way. At the Emirates, a Messi header which would have put Barcelona 2-0 up before half-time was wrongly disallowed for offside. Here the referee missed a clear penalty for Diaby’s first half foul on Messi.

There is also no arguing about the quality of Barcelona’s play, both with and particularly without the ball. So much of their passing and movement was mesmerisingly easy on the eye. And as so many commentators are so quick to point out, there is something hugely impressive about their ability to press high up the pitch and hunt in packs when they lose possession.

And yet. What if Éric Abidal had been dismissed for grabbing van Persie by the throat? What if van Persie stayed on the pitch? What if an eleven-man Arsenal had been able to finish strong as the effort of Barcelona’s pressing game caused them to tire late on, as they had at the Emirates both this season and last? What if Bendtner’s first touch had not let him down? What if van Persie and Fàbregas, who had started to feel a twinge early on, were more than half-fit? Or if Theo Walcott had been available?

What if? What if? What if?

The simple fact is that Arsenal were outplayed. For long spells of the game they could not get the ball out of their own half. When was the last time an Arsenal side had no shots? There was a collective failure to retain possession which meant that every time the ball was cleared it came straight back at the Arsenal back four.

In that context, the defence was outstanding. Koscielny and Djourou made one brilliant tackle after another, but they were never going to be able to remain error-free for 90 minutes against the incessant barrage. Almunia reminded his detractors that he is a very good instinctive shot-stopper, making at least five excellent stops to keep his team in contention to the end. And as a team, the overall defensive effort was excellent. But it was just not to be.

Further forward, Fàbregas, Rosický and Diaby all gave ineffective performances – the captain can perhaps be forgiven for being less than 100%, although his back-heel to set up the opening goal was shockingly casual. Only Wilshere – and to a lesser extent Nasri – ever really got into the game. The young Englishman looks every inch a future club captain.

I don’t want to dwell too much on Bendtner’s mis-control – it happens even to the very best players – but the fact that this was the closest an Arsenal player came to scoring in the entire game speaks volumes about the balance of play. Arsenal had just two touches in the Barcelona box throughout the 90 minutes. Barcelona had 47 touches in the Arsenal area.

And while it is easy to point at Arsenal’s apparent inability to pick up the pace in the final 20 minutes, this was down to the impact of having had to chase the ball for the first 70 minutes rather than a lack of urgency or motivation. Quite simply, Barcelona passed Arsenal to the point of exhaustion – just as Arsenal have done to so many other teams over the years.

The better team won. In football that isn’t always the case – nor should it be, as it would be a dull sport if it was – but it is both a consolation and an indication of how far this improving squad still needs to progress if it is to lift Europe’s top club trophy.

Arsenal must now pick themselves up for their FA Cup visit to Old Trafford to play Manchester United on Saturday, a game which could have an important bearing not just on the Cup, but on the outcome of the Premier League too. United are already on the ropes, and if Arsenal can deliver a knockout blow this weekend, the Double will remain a very real possibility. While confidence may be at a low ebb, motivation, at least, should not be an issue.

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