Wenger's limited reserves temper title aspirations
Arsenal 1 West Bromwich Albion 0
"There is always expectation around a club like Arsenal," said Brian Marwood in the club's opening day match programme.
The former winger was talking, however, about 1988-89, when George Graham's team, having finished 24 points adrift the previous campaign, were 16-1 outsiders. The modern Arsenal finished just four points off the pace last season, which ought to mean expectation engulfed the Emirates as Arsenal and Albion launched the Premier League on Saturday lunchtime.
Instead there was an odd mix of hope and guilty disenchantment. Arsenal fans are treated to beautiful football in a wonderful setting, they have a manager they revere, whose philosophy they can be proud of; but there is also a feeling that they are falling ever further behind the free-spending leviathans, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Wenger believes his squad is good enough to bridge the financial gulf. There was evidence, in the opening 90 minutes, to both contest and support his assertion. If Arsenal are to compete it will be because they have enough strength in reserve. The first XI, despite some reservations about the goalkeeper, is good enough to beat anyone. However, injuries are inevitable, especially given the familiarity Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky have with the treatment room. Against FC Twente in midweek Arsenal were without their entire first-choice midfield plus Kolo Touré. On Saturday Wenger could include Samir Nasri, but felt he needed to rest Van Persie.
Of the five understudies Denilson and Johan Djourou impressed and Emmanuel Eboué was his usual quixotic self but Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner again disappointed. Bendtner's anonymity was underlined by Van Persie's impact while Walcott, now 19, was unable, or unwilling, to go past Paul Robinson, a game but limited full-back more noted for the force than the finesse of his challenges. The creativity of Cesc Fabregas was badly missed, but Nasri did look a gem, albeit hardly a hitherto undiscovered one since he cost £11m and plays for France.
"He has shown that he is an intelligent player with a good technique, who can integrate well with the rest of the team," said Wenger approvingly.
That was evident as early as the fourth minute as Denilson worked himself some space, which meant he could break on to Gaël Clichy's pass without being tracked. The Brazilian thus had time to pick out the run of Nasri who steered a shot past Scott Carson. With Albion a shambles a rout threatened but the newly promoted team survived further incision and gradually grew in confidence. But for a scrambling block by Djourou, Robinson would even have levelled four minutes into the second period.
As Arsenal's frustration grew Adebayor was booed after squandering a series of opportunities. He had shown, however, his value to Wenger who blamed a "lack of sharpness" on the team's exertions in the Netherlands, 63 hours earlier.
Tony Mowbray, Albion's manager, found plenty of positives in his team's tenacity even if he may reflect that, given Arsenal's ersatz midfield, this was an opportunity missed. His team made life hard for Arsenal by fair means, not foul, and created chances through the bustling Ishmael Miller and elusive Do-Heon Kim. Mowbray is still seeking a quartet of signings, which would bring to 11 the number of new recruits. One assumes some will be defenders as Saturday's back four was the same one that conceded 55 goals in winning the Championship.
For Arsenal one further signing is anticipated, probably in midfield. Will that be enough to repeat the triumph Marwood enjoyed 20 years ago? Only if Arsenal's injury list proves significantly shorter than their rivals.
Goal: Nasri (4) 1-0.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Djourou, Clichy; Walcott (Touré, 72), Eboué, Denilson, Nasri; Bendtner (Van Persie, 69), Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Vela, Ramsey, Wilshere, Fabianski (gk), Randall.
West Bromwich Albion (4-5-1): Carson; Hoefkens, Barnett, Meite, Robinson; Cech (MacDonald, 68), Morrison, Greening, Kim, Brunt (Beattie, 79); Miller (Bednar, 73). Substitutes not used: Kiely (gk), Dorrans, Pele, Martis.
Referee: H Webb (Rotherham)
Man of the match: Nasri
Attendance: 60, 071.