03 August 2013

Arsenal 2-2 Napoli. Effin' hell, I'll take it!

After a dismal first half, I think many of us were throwing our hands up in despair. All of our worst fears were coming to the fore: the defense was in shambles, the midfielders looked sluggish, and we seemed content to pass the ball around until we were fouled or lost possession. We couldn't unlock a Napoli team that seemed happy to park the bus and hoof the ball the length of the field. It's an ugly style of play, but it only has to work once in a while. Sadly, we obliged twice through some horrid defending, and it looked like we were set for an embarrassing afternoon. The only bright spot for the first half, it seemed, was that Higuain hadn't scored. Then again, he was on the bench.

Let's get the rest of the bad news out of the way, the better to end on a high note. First, Carl Jenkinson. He looked truly out of his depth. His poorly headed ball that led to Napoli's first goal is only the most glaring fault, and this was just as much a fluke as it was poor positioning. Had he headed more cleanly, we could focus more of our attention on his extreme right-footedness, a flaw that limits his options when looking to play the ball out of the back and when joining the attack. It seems at times as if his left foot is allergic to the ball, and this, more than one bad header, is a problem that he will need to address if we're to count on as our right-back of the future.

Second, Podolski. He struggled all the way through, highlighted by a piss-poor PK that could have leveled the score ten minutes after Napoli's goal. His shot was tame; it lacked any pace and was placed only a meter or so to Reina's left, leading to a fairly easy save and a deflating letdown. The foul itself was dubious, a clumsy knee-to-knee hit on Gibbs that offered a scary reminder of how close we are to needing to call up a right-back from the Academy. Back to Podolski, it seems that each shot he took was a few feet wide; each pass he made was tentative or off-target, and he gave the ball away far too often. His performance begs the question of why he was allowed to stay on as long as he was, especially given how bright Gnabry was looking on the other side.

Third, Giroud. He had a truly awful first half but saved himself with a strong final 20 minutes. He was showing all of the bad habits that plagued him last year: sloppy shooting, poor dribbling, an inability to create chances for himself or others. It reminded me of his form early last season when he was desperate for a goal, anything to relieve the pressure he must have felt to replace van Persie. I just don't think he has the mindset or the skill to be that kind of scorer, at least not yet. His performance in Asia showed us that he can deliver, albeit against inferior competitors. Playing in front of the Gunner faithful, again, however, seems to have made him regress.

It was in the second half that the game seemed to shift. Perhaps Napoli was content to sit back and try to soak up pressure rather than pressing forward, but we seized the momentum. A number of subs seems also to have turned the tide; Walcott came on for Gnabry (who could have had two brilliant goals in the first half, including a cheeky, 50-yard chip that went just over the crossbar), and Sagna came on for Jenkinson. Giroud wasted a spot-kick by blasting it straight into the wall, but the attack looked more incisive and purposeful. By the time Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain came on for Wilshere and Ramsey, you'd have thought that we were the superior team.

Now, to the bright spots. Sagna came on and looked ten years younger, outleaping and outrunning Napoli's forwards. He sent several dangerous crosses through the box, placed just beyond Reina's reach but also out of reach of any forwards who were strangely absent at the far-post. Sagna's fountain of youth was a sight to behold. Between he and Koscielny, the defense tightened up brilliantly, and their involvement in both goals is a fitting tribute to their efforts. Koscielny was, even without his goal, my man of the match. He snuffed more chances than anyone on either side, by my estimate, and he patrolled the back-line with authority and tenacity. His goal was a stunner; he charged in to head home brilliantly, earning us a draw and keeping the Emirates Cup up for grabs.

Elsewhere, Giroud redeemed himself in the last twenty minutes with some well-taken shots from some tight angles. By the time he (or Sagna) scored in the 71st minute, he had made me almost forget his poor performance up to that point. Perhaps it was Higuain's appearance at the start of the first half that sparked Giroud to life. Speaking of Higuain, I wanted to reach out and punch the commentators for defending his play. It seemed that each time he got the ball, he was dispossesed, and they just kept saying he was still getting in shape. Yes, it's the preseason, but let's be honest: Koscielny was too much for him. We'll just leave it at that. I harbor no hard feelings against Higuain, but I was pleased to see that he didn't score (or come close, thanks to Kos).

In the end, I think we got the result we deserve and need. A loss would have stung too much, we didn't play well enough, long enough for a win, and a draw leaves no one happy. We're still alive in the Emirates Cup (as hosts, there's more pressure on us to put on a good showing), but there was enough to remind Arsène that we need some signings. A win might have glossed over our weaknesses, but it should be quite clear now (if it wasn't already) that we need better options up-top and some bolstering at the back. One on hand, we held our own against a Napoli squad that has been fairly aggressive in the transfer-market (enough to beat us to Higuain while also adding Reina, Albiol, Callejon, and five others to date). On the other, had we been able to deploy a tricksier striker capable of unlocking a defense, we might have done better than merely holding our own. If we expect to do better than 4th place, we'll need some help.

Here's hoping we get a few surprise announcements on Monday after beating Galatasaray. Their 1-0 win over Porto means they have four points to our three in the Cup. Let's win out, then, before he leaves, have a meeting with Porto's Jackson Martinez. Perhaps some business could be done?

Thanks, as always, for your visit. Feel free to comment below. Before you leave, please also consider casting your ballot in the 2012-13 YAMA Awards. Woolwich 1886 is honored to be a Best New Arsenal Blog nominee. Thanks!