Sunday, September 11, 2011

SSN Exclusive: Arsenal vs. Swansea: Bobbie's Match Report

Nick and Bobbie enjoy a day out...

Two weeks ago Arsene Wenger soiled thousands of perfectly pleasant family Sunday afternoons by leading his hapless squad of kids and veterans to slaughter in Manchester. I happened to be in Milwaukee for a beach weekend which ended with my entering a sulk so deep and dark that I was incapable of eating or even speaking to my family members. Wenger's reaction was a transfer day shopping spree in which he loaded up players that many have judged to be second rate. Due to fortunate circumstances I found myself in London for the Gunner's first match since those infamous events and I among millions waited with baited breath to see how the reshaped squad would respond.

I was set to rendezvous with my tickets guy, a longtime season ticket holder, at The Twelve Pins pub, a classic match day meeting place near Highbury stadium. I was reminded somewhat of my last visit to the old Detroit Tigers stadium-- a century's worth of local history had lost its immediate locus but the institutions themselves soldiered on. I still hadn't shaken the funk that had taken hold of me while watching the 8-2, but walking through the Gunners gear-wearing crowd to the bar I had a revelation-- in mostly watching these matches by myself or with casual fans I had few people with whom to connect and share genuine feelings about the given outcome, resulting in my developing an overly negative outlook about the team even when they were winning. It felt truly comforting to be amongst the true fans and to share in their optimism about the club. While they're in a bad patch and have dug themselves into a sizable hole in trying to finish fourth (even the most stalwart fans will admit that contending for titles is out of the immediate question), the fans still believe in the club and the manager and have hope for the future. Or alternately perhaps that warm feeling was due to mixing beer, jet lag and four hours of sleep.

After linking up with my group and finishing a few more beverages we all set out for the Emirates. As we neared Highbury the fans took over the roadway, walking down the middle with little concern for traffic. Highbury itself has a very different look about it since the renovations were completed, though even so its relatively low profile is a huge contrast to the monolithic Emirates. Our seats, while in the upper deck, were excellent as always. There are no bad seats at the Emirates and it's still as stunning now as it was when it opened four years ago. What followed could at best be described as a nervous and uncertain display, though a timely goal after a freakish mix-up between a defender and the Swansea gave the Gunners the three points they so desperately needed.

Rather than recap, I'll give you readers a handful of observations. The team played well in the first half, generally keeping the ball and getting into a variety of promising but rather nonthreatening positions. In the second half they were just rotten. Emmanuel Frimpong tackled very well and his positional play was good but he seemed hopeless as soon as he won the ball, continually giving it away all over the pitch. He shows immense promise but has a long way to go before he's close to the finished article. He seemed more mobile than Alex Song and in time may develop into a more well rounded player. Aaron Ramsey was terrible from start to finish. He was less involved than in previous games and his passing was terrible. He seems short of confidence in his new role as the focus of midfield. Arteta played a simple and effective game in the first half but was dire in the second before coming off. The Mertersacker/Koscielny pairing shows immense promise. Mertersacker was as slow as advertised but was always in the right place and tackled very well. Koscielny looked liberated by having a solid player behind him and was free to play a much more aggressive role than we've seen in the past, to great effect. Theo Walcott had a terrible game and Andrei Arshavin continues to look out of shape and lazy despite his wonderful finish for the decisive goal. To say Robin Van Persie looked frustrated by the service he got would be an understatement. He kept dropping deeper on the pitch to get involved and was thus often too far from goal to look dangerous.

Benayoun came on in the second half and looked like the player I remember from Portsmouth- neat touches and nice running on the ball but nothing resembling a final product. Wojciech Szczesny was immense and saved Arsenal's bacon numerous times in the second half as Swansea grew in confidence, looking fantastic collecting crosses and making a critical save in injury time. His emergence is easily the best thing that's happened for the club over the last year. Finally Maroune Chamakh came on to the field and looked decent at collecting and distributing the ball without ever looking like a dangerous player. He needs a goal in the worst way to get him back on track.

Taken objectively it was actually a fairly ugly match, but as a depressed fan I must say it was a wonderful day. Feeling the love of the crowd as they sang "We love you Arsenal" and observing the dedication and optimism of the fans in and around the ground worked wonders for my own feelings about the club. And of course at the end of the day there's just nothing like bagging the first win of the season to restore a little bit of faith. Watch this space as Sanford himself should be giving a report on the next home game against Michael Bolton's Wanderers.

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