Disjointed and disappointing, Arsenal completed the final leg of their Austrian training camp with defeat to Salzburg, at the newly redeveloped (and poorly named) Bulls Arena. However it’s not all doom and gloom as the boys gained a valuable workout against a pretty decent side who have already begun their domestic season.
As I logged on to Arsenal TV Online, I was surprised to see Giovanni Trapattoni at the helm of the opposition (I admit it, my knowledge of Austrian football is not red hot). More surprising than this was the choice of skipper for the night - the outspoken William Gallas. At face value it’s not too shocking a decision, but when you take into account the fact that Kolo and Jens were both in the starting eleven, it looked a bemusing one. Word is that Johan Djourou was scheduled to start alongside Gallas before withdrawing late on, thus forcing the Boss into drafting in Kolo at the last minute. Maybe Gallas was promised the captaincy earlier on in the day, and Wenger didn’t want to upset the applecart by switching the armband to Kolo so close to kick-off? Either way, I hope the absence of Johan has nothing to do with a possible loan switch to Brum, ‘cos on the basis of this performance, we’re gonna need all the centre-halves we can get…
The lineup was a strong one, and I would hazard a guess that, injuries permitting, seven of this team will take the field against Fulham in two-and-a-half weeks time. In the middle of the park our two understudies Denilson and Diaby got their chance in the absence of the apparently injured Cesc and the resting Gilberto, while Alex Hleb was restored to the right side of midfield ahead of Theo, who seemingly wasn’t on the bench either. Eduardo partnered Robin up-front for his first start in the red of Arsenal...i mean, white of Arsenal.
Both teams began brightly, Salzburg hitting a shot wide before Eduardo’s first positive involvement in the game. After being slipped in by Tommy Rosicky, he fired a low left-footed drive straight at the keeper’s legs. A good start.
Our Crozillian also had a penalty claim waved away after doing his man and going over. At first glance it looked a penalty to me, but the replays show that he did go down a bit too easily. I guess he’s been taking lessons from Eboue. His strike partner, on the other hand, looked quiet. Robin’s only meaningful contribution was a rising shot from outside the box which unfortunately rose too much. That said, it’s only his third game back and there will be more to come from him, I’m sure.
Eduardo continued to look lively and surprisingly dropped deep quite often. 20 minutes in, he looked to be through on goal and was poised to have a crack. However, the ball was on his right side and he is all left foot, so he ended up running away from goal. I hope this is just a confidence/early days thing, and in the future if he is one-on-one with the keeper in his right foot, he won’t hesitate to let fly. Soon thereafter came the best moment of the half for Gooners, as Diaby stomped forward from near the centre circle, weaving and bustling his way past 2 or 3 of the opposition. Eventually he was forced a bit wide though and his low cross was cut out comfortably by their keeper. It was the story of the match really, decent build up play up until the final third. A familiar tale, eh?
Eboue picked up an innocuous groin strain on the half-hour when stretching for a ball, and there was enough movement on the bench to suggest that he was coming off. Just as the substitution was to be made my feed cut off, and I was shocked to see Rosicky coming off to be replaced by Sagna when I got my feed back. Hleb went over to the left whilst the fit-as-a-fiddle Eboue pushed forward, allowing Sagna to slot in at right-back. Rosicky was one of our better players up until then, and after the change there was little incident of note for the rest of the half, apart from a bit of harem scarem pinball in the Arsenal box which was safely cleared in the end.
Four changes were made by Arsene at the break as Fabianski, Justin, the Flamster and Nicklas Bendtner came on for Jens, Traore, Denilson and Robin. Bendtner in particular looked impressive, he has a good touch and combined well with Eduardo. It was this combination in fact which led to our best chance of the game, as a Hleb cutback from the left was found the Dane, who in one motion controlled, turned and layed the ball off to Eduardo. A golden opportunity - it fell onto his trusty left foot - was wasted as he placed the ball inches wide of the post. The two combined well once again, this time a Bendtner headed flick-on sending Eduardo racing through, only for him to delay his shot enough for the keeper to come out and smother.
Fabianski was called into action a few times, doing well in the process. These days all keepers are invariably good shot stoppers, what marks out the best from the rest is their ability to command their box. Technically Jens has this ability, but of course his temperament leaves a lot to be desired. From early observation, Fabianski has a good temperament as well as the technical ability, although there was one moment where he came too far for a ball and ended up handling it over the line, resulting in a booking.
With 15 minutes remaining they scored from sloppy defending on our part - how else do we concede? A crossed ball from their left saw us outnumbered at the back post, causing chaos in the area. Fabianski did well to put their man off, but the ball wasn’t cleared properly and the rebound fell to Janocko, whose attempt at imitating Frank Lampard as the king of the deflected goal came up trumps, with Gallas (I think) getting his arse in the keeper’s way.
We didn’t have much of reply, the only attempts being two headers from Eduardo and Flamini that missed the target, and a swivel shot from Eboue going high and wide. After Rosicky’s injury, I had been looking forward to seeing Eboue and Sagna link up down the right wing. I’ll be honest, it didn’t work. Eboue came infield too much and looks better coming onto the ball from a deeper position, rather than having to instigate the play himself. We definitely missed the verve and directness of Theo, he likes getting his boots white with chalk by hugging the touchline and stretching the play. He is only a teenager though and can’t be expected to do the job all season round so another winger is a must, especially with Freddie gone. On the other flank, Alex Hleb gave his usually Jekyll and Hyde performance, his over-dribbling often leading him down blind alleys. There was one moment when he was deep in his own half where somehow he managed to dribble away from considerable pressure before playing a wonderful (and risky ball) across the defence to the feet of a team-mate. When his fancy footwork comes off he is excellent, and to be fair to him his end product was good in this match after he switched over to the left wing.
Top Gun on the night was, without a shadow of a doubt, Abou Diaby. We’ve seen his dribbling skills and his ability to get past his man with ease on previous occasions. And of course, like his predecessor Mr. Vieira, his telescopic legs allow him to intercept many balls in midfield. Tonight he got stuck in, winning 50-50’s and keeping things ticking over in midfield. Add to that his barnstorming run in the first half, and he looks ever more like old Paddy. There was one passage of play where he was dispossessed of the ball and proceeded to hustle his opponent into submission before sliding in to win possession back. Fantastic stuff.
Overall, irrespective of the result it’s always good to get another 90 minutes under the belt at this time of the season. Bright sparks were the performances of Diaby and Hleb, whilst Eduardo impressed with his movement and general link-up play, if not his finishing. Also Bendtner came on and did well. The ATVO commentator was bemoaning his lack of pace, but I think he gives us a different option up-front, one which I’m sure we’re gonna have to utilise this season at the Emirates as teams come and park the bus. People may say he’s just like Adebayor minus the pace, but Ade is more a willing worker of the channels and whilst Bendtner may be more static, he seems to be better aerially than Ade Cool.
The defence was not great as a unit. Individually, hardly any mistakes were made. But Willy and Kolo just don’t seem to gel when the ball is flung high into our box. On the floor they’re two of the best in the world, but maybe they are too similar for things to work. Hopefully time will see them iron out any flaws in their partnership, but this Gooner ain’t too sure and I’d love to be proved wrong.
Another problem was the lack of penetration. Without Theo, we looked toothless down the right side. Unless Wenger pulls a rabbit out of the hat with another signing, maybe 4-3-3 is the best option for this group of players? We have an abundance of talent in central midfield, with Gilberto and Cesc being guaranteed first-teamers, along with the continued development of exceptional young talents Diaby and Denilson. Don’t forget that Rosicky and Hleb are naturally central, attacking midefielders either, so they could easily slot in here if we were feeling more adventurous. Not only would this give us more protection to the back four, especially aerially with the height of Gilberto and Diaby, but it could help with our width issues as the full-backs may be happier to bomb forward upon seeing potentially three players to cover them, as opposed to the two they normally see in a 4-4-2. Up top we would potentially see the full benefit of Theo as he would receive the ball in more dangerous areas, whilst Robin and Eduardo are clever enough to work off the central spearhead, be it Ade or Bendtner. And if we are away from home then there will always be a need for the two wide forwards to drop back into midfield to make it a 4-5-1, something which Rosicky and Hleb are perfectly capable of doing (Hleb’s best spell of form, in my opinion, came in this very position during our run to the Champions League final).
But enough of me trying to be a master tactician. That is what Arsene is paid to do. I’m off to the Emirates on Saturday to sample the wonders of Club Level as a birthday present to my dad, hopefully we’ll get to see another violent ruckus between Inter and Valencia before seeing The Arsenal royally thump PSG. In truth, I’d happily settle for a performance with a little more sparkle than tonight’s. A goal or two wouldn’t go amiss either.