Wenger grabs chance to change mood for the better
Display in Turkey show his side’s weaknesses have been overstated
Arsenal’s coach Arsene Wenger looks on before the Champions League qualifying soccer match against Fenerbahce in Istanbul. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
Had Arsenal finished anywhere but fourth in the Premier League last season they would not have had to play this game, and would have been able to recover from Saturday’s defeat to Aston Villa in relative privacy. Instead Arsene Wenger has been contractually obliged to discuss his side’s failings in daily press conferences, the fresh quotes sustaining several days of bonus negative headlines. Saturday’s was a painful defeat but it has been over-analysed as a result of an unfortunate accident of scheduling.
Few teams could understand Arsenal’s pain better than Fenerbahce, who having come second in last season’s Super Lig and reached the Europa League semi-finals suffered their own an humiliating opening-day reverse, when they somehow parlayed a 2-0 lead with 15 minutes to play into a 3-2 defeat at freshly promoted Konyaspor. This game offered both sides an opportunity to change the mood for the better, and it was one the visitors grabbed greedily.
For all the noise their fans created, from the start their home side seemed by some distance second best, and there were moments – one pizzicato exchange of passes around Fenerbahce’s penalty area in the 18th minute, for example – which recalled the best years of Wenger’s Arsenal. This team are not as good as many Arsenal fans hoped it would be at this stage but their weakness has been overplayed.
The visitors dominated the first half, enjoying 54% of possession and not allowing their hosts a single shot on goal, but for all their pressure goalscoring chances of their own were extremely limited, with Olivier Giroud passing up probably the best of them when blasting wide in the closing minutes.
Arsenal’s forward line and their undermanned defence, so stretched after Laurent Koscielny’s injury that Bacary Sagna was again asked to improvise at centre-half – which he did decently enough – are most in need of assistance.
For all the first-half frustrations Arsenal always had one threatening attacking option in the shape of Theo Walcott on the right flank. From the start his running was too intelligent, and too quick, for Michal Kadlec, Fenerbahce’s left-back, and this individual duel was eventually to lead to two of Arsenal’s three goals. Given the troubles elsewhere in Arsenal’s attack Walcott is increasingly expected to provide a cutting edge and he is proving utterly undaunted by the pressure. Kadlec, at 28 a veteran of 48 appearances for the Czech Republic, can rarely have been made to look quite as hapless as he was here.
Among Arsenal’s many faults on Saturday was a central midfield that frequently failed to do the defensive work that was required of them. Neither Aaron Ramsey nor Jack Wilshere is entirely comfortable patrolling the space in front of the defence, which explains why they so often chose to patrol other space entirely.
Here they had another go, with slightly better results. Ramsey in particular was effervescent and the midfield pair were allowed to spend long periods where they are most comfortable, in their opponents’ half.
After half an hour Pierre Webo kicked Koscielny full in the face and, as Arsenal’s physios treated injuries that stained their cloths with blood and forced the defender’s departure, the referee called him over. If ever there was a time to bow your head and accept your punishment, this was it. But instead Fenerbahce’s Cameroonian international striker greeted the inevitable yellow card with a look of outraged, wot-me-guv innocence that proved that he has a talent both for kicks and slapstick.
Koscielny has had a particularly hideous start to the season, both matches so far having ended early with him seeing red. The only question is which he found more distressing – the referee’s crimson card on Saturday, or his own fissured forehead last night.