August 23, 2013

The number of times over the last several years that people have described Arsenal as having a "roller coaster" season is practically innumerable.   Well, guess what?

After a very promising pre-season, last Saturday's season opener went about as badly as any hack screenwriter could have written. And then rebounded as well as anyone could have hoped.

It all started about a week ago when word trickled out that Arsenal's on-field leader, Mikel Arteta suffered a thigh injury and would miss around six weeks. A big blow for certain.

But after five minutes against Aston Villa, the nervousness over losing such a key player dissipated. Olivier Giroud opened Arsenal's account for the season off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's lovely low cross. It was perfect continuity from Arsenal's 3-1 win over Manchester City in Finland the week before.

But things would change within about 15 minutes - in a rather controversial way. Gabriel Agbonlahor tore through Arsenal's defense and Wojciech Szczesny brought him down inside the area. The referee at first played the advantage, but when the ball went wide of the target, he pointed to the spot. Szczesny made the initial save on Christian Benteke's shot, but the Belgian pounced on the rebound for the equalizer.

Then came the decimation.

Kieran Gibbs collided with Andreas Weimann and was forced out of the game with a nasty looking cut above his eye. Just before the half-time whistle Oxlade-Chamberlain went in for a 50-50 and came out for the worse. He did not return for the second half.

Arsenal made a bright start to the second half but couldn’t convert any of their chances. Villa took the lead in the 62nd minute when the referee ruled that Laurent Koscielny fouled Agbonlahor in the area and granted another penalty and another yellow card. Benteke converted from the spot. To make matters worse, Koscielny was booked a second time minutes later and Arsenal's defense was down to two starters – with one of them playing out of position.

Villa picked up a third goal and we got a big scare when Bacary Sagna took a big tumble and landed on his neck in the waning minutes of the game. At my local pub, we all assumed he would be out for weeks.

"We started the game well and then suddenly everything went against us," said Arsène Wenger in the post-match press conference. It was kind of remarkable really. To borrow a concept from 7amkickoff, here's a quick look at the game by the numbers:

3 – starting defenders forced out of the game
2 – penalties awarded to the other team
1 – controversial referee, who incidentally is not working a game this weekend.

Wenger also confirmed that in addition to Gibbs, Ox and Sagna, three other players picked up knocks: Ramsey, Rosicky and Wilshere. So immediately panic set in and speculation over what our starting line-up against Fenerbahce in the Champions League play-off would be.

Talk among fans in the Twitterverse and journalists in the… erm… medialaxy immediately turned to the transfer window and what Arsenal would do. The manager made very clear that he was working to bring in more players, but that his immediate focus was on Tuesday's game in Istanbul.

Fenerbahce are no pushovers. Their home stadium is known as an incredibly intimidating place to play and their fans are extremely vocal and passionate. And they also feature some very good talent.

But there was a quiet confidence around the squad. Carl Jenkinson insisted that they would bounce back in Turkey. Szczesny said that despite the loss, there was more than enough quality in the Arsenal squad to get a positive result.

Per Mertesacker spoke about what Arsenal needed to do to win: "You have to play consistently over the whole 90 minutes and it is very important to be very focused on the first 15 to 20 minutes. We need to be ready and defend properly."

Apparently, the big German fellow wrote the script to this game because that summed up the first leg very succinctly. Arsenal defended very well, bossed the midfield, and put three goals past Fenerbahce's goalkeeper. But perhaps the best news that came out of the game was that with the exception of the Ox, each one of the players that were beaten up by the Villa game started – and excelled.

Of course it wouldn't be Arsenal if that was the end of the post-game team news. Koscielny was forced off the pitch again, but this time it wasn't by the referee. It was due to the gaping wound he suffered as a result of being kicked straight in the face.

"I don’t know really what to think about it," said Wenger after the match. "When I saw it, I was angry. But I don’t know if the player can explain to you exactly what he did." Koscielny's compatriot Giroud later tweeted a photo of "Lolo" on the team plane, bandaged but smiling.

Theo Walcott, who set up Gibb's opening goal, said, "The tempo of the game was the key. Straight away, we got [at them]. We wanted to quieten the fans and we did that, even though it was 0-0 at half-time." He later added, "If we perform like that, with that intensity, we can beat anyone."

It made Wenger think of another Champions League match-up where Arsenal were not expected to play as well as they did. "We had the kind of attitude we had at Bayern Munich," he said.

The star of the show was Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman grabbed the second goal and simply dominated the midfield throughout the game. Walcott thinks this is going to be a big, big season for Ramsey and it's hard to disagree. Lukasz Fabianski certainly doesn't. "Apart from scoring the second goal, he gave the ball to Theo for the first and he then set up Gibbsy. Aaron is bossing the midfield, his engine is massive so he can run and run and tactically he has improved a lot."

So two very different results, but one common concern remains: the depth of the squad. The manager said that he is "a bit worried that number-wise, we are not strong enough to cope with all the targets a club like this has. We will not go into the new season with only the number of players we have." But Wenger insists deadline day will not be like two years ago when he bought four players and made a loan signing.

But as for this weekend's game at Fulham, what you see is what you get. The Cottagers have given Arsenal plenty of problems in recent years, and this year's squad could be tricky. New signings Scott Parker and Darren Bent have been thorns in Arsenal's sides before and Dimitar Berbatov can cause all kinds of problems. With Koscielny suspended, Berbatov will definitely be a big test for auxiliary center back Bacary Sagna, but one of the fun facts of the match-up is that Sagna is superior to the Bulgarian in aerial duels. But regardless of who the opposition is, after last week, this is a huge game for the Gunners.

It's a lunchtime kick-off tomorrow which means a very early wake-up for Gooners in North America. But despite the early hours, many will hit their local before sun-up. If state laws preclude bars from being open that early, the game will be aired live on NBCSN in the USA, Sportsnet in Canada, and as ever Arsenal Player will provide live audio.

Let's get this season back on track. Come on you Gunners!

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Kevin Mooney 23 Aug 2013