A First Real Test for the Arsenal (Highlights)

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Arsenal endured their first real test on Wednesday evening at the AWD Arena coming away with a 1-nil victory over Hannover 96 thanks to a well-worked goal finished by Cesc Fabregas in the 9th minute [highlights below and to the right].

Arsenal came out of the gate firing on all cylinders and completely dominated the entire first half. Their passing and movement were superb and Hannover struggled to even string more than two passes together for much of the first forty-five minutes. The goal came early as Nicklas Bendtner, playing wide right in Arsene’s take on a 4-3-3 (actually, it’s more like a 4-2-1-2-1), looped a ball to Robin van Persie who, with his back to goal outside the box, turned inside and fed Fabregas’s well-timed run. The keeper came out but Cesc went around him and hit the empty net.

Bendtner would go on to have a few chances of his own in the first half as would Andrei Arshavin, who was deployed wide left with Robin van Persie as the central striker. When the Gunners lined up, I was sure that we would see much interchanging of positions among the front three but, surprisingly, Bendtner stayed wide right for almost the entire first half. While it is not where he can be most effective, he nonetheless still imposed his presence on the match. The Gunners fell away in the second half as Hannover came out of the interval more determined to get stuck in and hold a bit of possession.

What this match did was give Arsenal its first exposure to a scrappy, rough match this preseason. And while they were never able to get back to the form the side showed in the first half, they responded well and held on to the lead despite having what Wenger called “heavy legs” due to twice-a-day training sessions against a team who is almost two weeks ahead of Arsenal in their preseason training

Bendtner, I believe, has really taken his chance in this preseason. It was no secret that he would never have the opportunity to be a regular in the first XI as long as Adebayor was at the club. But now with Adebayor gone, it is the big Dane’s moment and he is grabbing it.

Kolo Toure’s deal with Manchester City was also confirmed yesterday and I’d like to wish him the best of luck. While I’m disappointed to see him go, you have to admit that 15m for a player who has looked past his best in the last 18 months is a pretty good bit of business, as usual, on Arsene’s part. Whether or not he can make it a great bit of business by using the money wisely yet promptly remains to be seen.

Patrick Vieira

Also, rumours fueled by Ian Wright, the Sun’s resident Arsenal critic, now have Patrick Vieira returning to the club on a “pay-as-you-play” basis after turning down a similar offer from Spurs. The headlines linking Vieira to Spurs rightly made me cringe. And, even though he is 33, I would gladly have him back on a free with a one-year deal. He would bring experience and leadership back to the club, and, while he obviously can’t play 40 matches, he could play 20. Though, I imagine his real contribution to the club would come in training and the locker room.

It also appears that Emmanuel Eboue may be on his way to Fiorentina well and truly after all. Eboue made a point of recognizing and clapping the traveling Arsenal supporters following the match. I have to say that this is the deal that would trouble me the most of the three who will have left. Eboue is the one player for whom we do not have a ready-made replacement. There is no player in the squad who you can automatically say would become Sagna’s primary backup should Eboue leave. Not to mention his versatility which has seen him play on both the right wing and even in a holding position in addition to his natural right back spot. This move has the potential to leave us very exposed at right back should anything happen to Sagna, god forbid.

Enjoy the highlights!

The Differences between the Invincibles and the Current Arsenal Side

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While many Arsenal supporters are already mourning the loss of Kolo Toure ahead of his expected move to Manchester City in the coming hours, Arsenal Station would like to take this occasion to look at the major differences between the current side and the Invincibles, of which Toure was the last surviving member at the club.

Far more significant than the personnel changes in the club since Arsenal lifted the Premier League trophy with a record of 26-12-0 on 15 May 2004 have been the changes in style. I would like to take a look at what I see as the six major differences in style between these two Arsene Wenger sides.

The most glaring difference between the current side and the Invincibles is in central midfield. In fact, it is the biggest difference between this and ALL of Wenger’s Arsenal sides. Wenger used to rely on a strong central midfield and strong central midfielders to win and hold possession. Even when Arsene brought in a Brazilian in Gilberto, he was the hardest Brazilian midfielder at the time. However, Wenger’s choosing of Fabregas to replace Vieira in the midfield upon the latter’s departure signaled a momentous shift in the footballing philosophy at Arsenal. It meant that Arsenal would move from a strong, powerful central midfield to a smaller, more creative type of midfield.

robert piresBecause of the strength in the center of midfield, the Invincibles had most of their attacking creativity deposited wide on the wings in Pires and Ljungberg. Yet both players were equally adept at regularly getting into more central scoring positions. This allowed Arsene to counterbalance the choice for strength over creativity in the center. Since players like Ljungberg and Pires are not widely available, if at all, Arsene has sought to create that type of player by putting players whose natural position is the center out on the wings and giving them free license. But while Hleb and Rosicky never really fulfilled the hopes of 12-15 goals from the wing, it seems that he may now have found the answer in Arshavin, Nasri, and Walcott.

Another by-product of the change in midfield style has been the loss of the counterattack as a primary weapon. In all my years watching football, I have never seen a team break more quickly, more efficiently, and more creatively than the Arsenal of 2002-05. Yet as Arsenal’s style became more dependent on possession, counterattacking opportunities have become fewer and seemingly less appealing to a team in search of the “perfect goal.”

Dennis with Prem trophyAnother difference between the sides is the lack of a player in the role of Dennis Bergkamp. Arsenal only truly play someone in that role when they have used a 4-5-1 in recent years. Now one might say that Robin van Persie plays off the main striker and, positionally-speaking, that may be correct at times. But van Persie doesn’t link Fabregas in the midfield to the main striker with the same determination as Bergkamp. This is not necessarily van Persie’s fault since that was Bergkamp’s defined role and he relished in it. van Persie is far more useful in and around the box than 25-30 yards out looking for runs into the box, anyway. Yet it remains a serious stylistic change.

The most tangible difference between the sides are their homes. The Invincibles played their matches on the narrow Highbury pitch in a stadium that reeked of history and tradition. The current side ply their trade on a significantly larger pitch created to accomodate this change of style in a state-of-the-art facility with no aura surrounding it. That is where the biggest challenge to the new side comes in… the Invincibles inherited a home, this new side must create their own home… by bringing trophies back to it.

Finally, and quite possibly the most significant difference between the sides is in the defense. This has less to do with the makeup of the back four than its overall record. No Wenger team has conceded more goals than the current side. In fact, the late defensive run by the club last season saw them narrowly avoid conceding an average of a goal per match, something the club has done only once in Wenger’s reign (2002-03). The center back pairing of Gallas-Toure has never come close to that of Campbell-Toure and that is mostly down to the fact that Gallas is no Campbell but also Kolo is not nearly the player now that he was then. In 2003-04, Toure was only in his second season at the club and just beginning to get regular starts in his new position. He still had the hunger of a young, unproven upstart. Following his return from the 2008 African Cup of Nations, he never really looked the same player.

I am not implicitly saying that any of these changes are necessarily for the worst, though, inevitably, they may be perceived that way, and may actually be, until Arsene and his new style finally bring the first trophies to the Emirates. In honour of the “Invincibles,” enjoy “49: The Complete Unbeaten Record.”

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