When questioned whether Alex Song’s sending off against Sunderland was frustrating, Arsene Wenger replied with a double negative: “You cannot not be frustrated.” This retort aptly summed up both the dismissal and the Gunners’ day as a whole, with a double negative emphasising an overwhelmingly frustrating weekend.
The first negative was the result. With the 10 men seemingly on course to record an important victory, some sloppy defending in the dying minutes allowed Darren Bent to snaffle a late equaliser. A lack of cohesion is, to some extent, understandable given that both members of Saturday’s central defensive partnership only arrived this summer, but having stood resolutely with 10 men in the face of increasing pressure from the Mackems, the equaliser only serves to disappoint further. Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny had dealt impressively with Sunderland’s long balls up to lone striker Bent, and particularly Koscielny’s pace and awareness snuffed out the threat of Bent’s runs in behind the backline. His performance did not warrant the cruel twist of fate as Gael Clichy’s hacked clearance ricocheted off him, falling kindly into the path of Bent. The English marksman was again the scourge of the Gunners, having scored the only goal of the game in last season’s trip to Wearside. Further resonance with previous encounters is apparent when looking back to the 2008/09 season, when it was Arsenal who snatched a late equaliser in a 1-1 draw through the scorer of Saturday’s opening goal, Cesc Fabregas. These results combine to produce the less than impressive statistic that the Gooners have collected only two points from their last three visits to the Stadium of Light.
It is widely perceived that the test of the side’s credentials will be how they fare against the sides they lost to last season, and having already rectified one of those losses by beating Blackburn at Ewood Park, the signs for the season ahead appeared to be very positive. Although Saturday’s result was an improvement on last season’s defeat, and two points dropped at this stage of the season is hardly catastrophic, the match had been widely billed as the litmus test of how far they had come this season, and how far they could go. The failure to deal with an aerial cross, resulting in a late equaliser was an all too familiar sight and Arsenal passed up the opportunity of topping the table and putting the pressure firmly back on their title rivals.
Of course, their title rivals inflicted the majority of last season’s defeats, and slip-ups such as this place even greater emphasis on those crunch encounters. It would be both arrogant and unrealistic to expect to win every game, but with Arsenal’s recent record against their title rivals providing a less than rosy picture, there is added significance in their away trips to the north. Whilst it is never acceptable to expect defeat against a rival, Arsenal’s recent record does provide much comfort, and with this in mind, pressure is already beginning to mount ahead of the looming encounter with Chelsea on 4 October.
The second negative to arise was in terms of personnel. Song’s dismissal now means that he is suspended for the next game, and in conjunction with Abou Diaby’s injury, leaves the centre of Arsenal’s midfield lacking physical presence. Denilson’s return from injury means that he may well be pressed into a defensive midfield role, similar to the one he occupied due to mounting injuries last season. The more glaring absence from the middle of the park is Fabregas, who was withdrawn mid-way through Saturday evening’s encounter. It is hoped that he will not be sidelined for long, as he was just beginning to string together a run of matches and recapture the form his recent injuries had stripped from him. He was instrumental in the comprehensive victories over Bolton and Braga; dictating the tempo and carving open the opposition, and his industry and commitment led to his albeit fortuitous opener against Sunderland.
After a disappointing result, there is nothing to do but learn from the mistakes made and look forward. Fortunately the chance to redeem presents itself on Tuesday thanks to a mouth-watering Carling Cup clash with Tottenham Hotspur. Wenger is likely to shuffle his pack and give the youngsters a run-out, but must be mindful that he faces a tricky balancing act. It has always been his policy to ‘blood’ young talent in the competition, giving them vital experience without the pressure of the biggest matches. However, he must bear in mind that against a weakened Arsenal side, Spurs inflicted a painful and humiliating 5-1 defeat in the competition in the 2007/08 season and similarly, although the Carling Cup is not a priority, the competition offers a very realistic chance of silverware. How wholesale the changes are will give a key indication of just how seriously Le Professeur takes the competition this season.