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The Kids Learn a Lesson… Hopefully
Regular guest contributor, Ted Harwood, reflects back on Arsenal’s 1-nil defeat in Greece in their final Champions League Group Stage fixture.
You know that feeling you get when you realize that there is so much more over the horizon, so much out there that one could experience, so much more to try? The joy of the (relatively) unknown must surely run through Arsène Wenger’s mind when he looks down his squad list and the numbers start stretching into the 30s and 40s.
He has seen these players play against the Villa reserves, against the Wolves youth squad, but a man such as he with the eye for talent he has must wonder how Bould and Brady’s lads could do if given a long leash against the hard men of Europe. Similarly, the lads themselves will no doubt dream about the chance to play in front of crowds of tens of thousands instead of hundreds, the comforts of Underhill tilted against the churning cauldrons of ultras with drums, trumpets, and flares.
Ninety minutes in Piraeus made those thoughts manifest. Although Arsenal came out on the losing end, Wenger will have gleaned much from what he saw, and reserve players such as Kyle Bartley, Tom Cruise, Fran Merida, Kerrea Gilbert, and Gilles Sunu will have a taste—just a taste!—of something that they will want more going forward.
The game itself came in fits and starts. Arsenal started off brightly, controlling possession for the first fifteen minutes before the Greeks began to find their feet. Aaron Ramsey ran the show from midfield, collecting short passes from Song (who was excellent all evening) and threading long balls through to Walcott, Vela, and Wilshere.
Ramsey’s good play continued all evening. In one instance, in the 66th minute, Ramsey used the same outside of his boot that he scored with on Saturday to spring Walcott through on goal with a 50-yard pass. Cesc would’ve been applauding that effort, wherever he was watching.
The newcomers in defense, Kyle Bartley and Tom Cruise, for the most part did well with the aid of captain Mikaël Silvestre, who played centre-half for the evening. Bartley will want to forget the unfortunate bounce at the start of the second half that allowed the streaking Leonardo to collect, run, and shoot under the onrushing Fabianski for the only goal of the game, but other than that miscue, the centre-half looked solid.
Cruise was matched up against Argentina international Luciano Galletti and managed to limit the winger to only three crosses that were dangerous. Cruise’s positioning was otherwise solid, and if he continues to improve, Arsenal may have the deepest left-back position in the world on their hands.
Gilbert played another solid game at right-back to follow-up on his performance against Liverpool in the Carling Cup. If anything, he looked even more comfortable under pressure than he had in his other senior appearance. Wilshere and Merida continued their adventurous forward runs and slick passing and on occasion both threatened to dribble right through the Olympiacos defense and on goal. Although he only played for about twenty minutes, Gilles Sunu brought a fresh breeze with him when he came on for Wilshere, even switching sides with Walcott at one point and launching crosses from all angles.
If anyone will look back with disappointment on the evening, it will be Vela and Walcott. The former actually played a decent match, but he also had the best chance of the evening from a square pass from Ramsey which he could only shoot against the onrushing Antonios Nikopolidis.
Walcott is still suffering from a bit of rust and perhaps tried to do too much on the evening. He often dribbled when he should have passed, his free kicks were less than adequate, and his first touch was that of a man who has been out for a few weeks. He did put himself in good positions, though, and his pace was electrifying. He will put the match behind him, though, his talent not in doubt, but he has had better days in Eastern Europe before.
Despite the gap in age and in desperation, Arsenal bossed much of the possession in the game, and Wenger will be encouraged by the continued excellence of Song and the confident performance from Silvestre and Ramsey. Another day and the scoreline could’ve been quite different, but that should not change Wenger’s overall takeaway from the match, and his thoughts of what may be around the corner will be more fleshed out. For the present, bring on Anfield.