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After an uninspiring summer and week of doubts about our top-four credentials, our point at Newcastle was encouraging.
I haven’t checked the papers yet but no doubt the handbags shared between Gervinho and Joey Barton, as well as Song’s unseen stamp on the latter, will have attracted all the headlines this morning. Let me clear that up swiftly – Gervinho was rightly sent off, Song will rightly get a retrospective red card and Barton showed exactly why any supporters wanting him in our team need their head looking at.
Rather than the loss of discipline, the main thing I’ll take from the game is how surprisingly solid we looked in defence. Vermaelen adds a reassuring presence and highlights just how poor some of our defending was last year. When long balls are booted downfield by a keeper or centre back when TV5 is playing, I don’t begin to watch through my fingers expecting someone to miss a simple header. He is unfussy, tidy and played like the team’s true captain.
Likewise Gibbs’ displayed exactly why his supporters, including me dare I say it, believe he is a better choice as left back than the departed Clichy – he undoubtedly offers more attacking threat and is arguably stronger defensively too. He will make mistakes as he develops but Clichy made them even after becoming the finished article and you have to think if it wasn’t for injuries Gibbs would have pushed his predecessor out earlier.
And that pinpoints the danger of keeping our squad in the current state. Gibbs and Vermaelen bring so much to the team but are among the most injury prone too. Song performed well but is always going to be a booking – or worse as he showed yesterday – waiting to happen. Ignoring the fact that other members of the team, like Koscielny, aren’t up to the same standard, the squad is too thin to maintain a real challenge, particularly at centre back and defensive midfield.
At the other end of the pitch our cutting edge was missing but the rest of our attacking play was slick on the whole and didn’t seem to be missing the presence of Fabregas and Nasri. Yes, they might have supplied a killer pass but most of our joy came from wide areas rather than through the middle.
The Van Persie conundrum
Of more significance is the role of Van Persie, the actual captain. On Friday I wrote how our season was going to be determined by his performances. My note of caution then was his injury record but yesterday showed his limitations as a lone striker. In short, he can’t be a fulcrum for a team as he’s a ‘blink and you miss it’ player; a constant threat for a defence but not a constant contributor.
If it doesn’t click for him on a given day, though, the alternatives are minimal. The loss of form (or did he just over-perform at the start of last season?) of Chamakh is as mysterious as it is frustrating given that he is more able to link play together. I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing Walcott now make the progression from winger to striker but with Bendtner seemingly on the way out, our choices up front appear limited.
The issue, of course, could be addressed in the transfer market but I have a growing sense that there is some discord between board and Wenger.
At the start of the close-season, and even last week at the independent supporters’ forum if the quotes attributed to him were accurate, Gazidis made great play of accepting we needed to bring in experienced players capable of closing games down.
So far our signings offer anything but that and in Wenger’s bizarre press conference on Friday (‘I expect no-one to leave’) and elsewhere he has suggested no defenders are required. The odd case of Juan Mata – linked so heavily with us it seemed a certainty he was coming and now staying put – also adds to the sense that we’re not all pulling in the same direction.
The Newcastle game showed we still play the classiest football when allowed to and that our first-choice defence is more solid than last year. Those expecting Liverpool to take fourth spot may have written us off too soon but yesterday's point shouldn’t disguise the fact that reinforcements need to be made. Any lack of communication between Gazidis and Wenger needs sorting by August 31.