Arsenal kicked off life without Robin Van Persie and Alex Song with a rather dull draw against a disciplined Sunderland. Lukas Podolski started up front and battled hard but to no avail. It could be possible he has rarely faced such a packed defence, playing the majority of his football for a team who were battling relegation, and as a result he struggled. He only managed 2 shots and looked to link-up play more often than not.
Santi Cazorla was pushed off the ball easily at the start and Sunderland were more than willing to welcome him to the Premier League. He quickly adapted though and began to show his quality, spraying passes and ghosting laterally between Sunderland’s defence and midfield, almost managing the perfect arrival with a long-range shot that was saved well by Mignolet. The Spaniard managed to create 7 chances and finished with a passing accuracy of 94%, after playing 90 minutes and a flight to and from Costa Rica mid-week. He could be the key player we missed last season and I can’t wait to watch him when he is fully fit.
Gervinho and Walcott failed to impress and Wenger admitted he had got the formation wrong starting with 2 direct wingers. Towards the end of last season we played with Benayoun on the left and the attack looked a lot more balanced. Walcott was anonymous and confirmed that he may not be worth the contract he values himself at as he is completely ineffective against half of the Premier League sides. The effort was there though and hopefully he can link up better with Giroud who has more presence than Podolski. Gervinho looks more confident, but his decision-making still needs work with 4 shots blocked and 3/4 successful dribbles.
Diaby and Arteta were relatively untroubled and Arteta continued his form from last season with a 96% passing accuracy. Diaby looked like a player playing his first full game since 2011 but thankfully came off uninjured and hopefully a run of games will do him the world of good. Arteta, interestingly, shielded the defence brilliantly, winning 2 tackles and 5 ground duels. Mertesacker and Vermaelen looked very open in the beginning, partly down to the forward forays of Gibbs and Jenkinson. After Sunderland tested Szczesny early on with two quick counter-attacks, the full-backs curbed their attacking runs and the defence looked more narrow, possibly due to Steve Bould’s influence on the side. Mertesacker is a great influence on the side and his reading of the game was on display here, marking Sessegnon out of the game and not allowing him to cause the problems he usually does.
More experienced and gelled Arsenal sides have struggled to break down a 10 man defence so the result is nothing to get sensationalist about as many fans and media have already. Hopefully another weak of training can help the attacking players click and hopefully we can come through an encounter at the Britannia unscathed.
The loss of Van Persie and the sale of Alex Song means the team has robbed the team of 30 league goals and 21 assists. Song, with his want-away attitude and lax attitude to training and games, will only be a good piece of business if replaced with a player of equal ability or better. Van Persie, on the other hand, is irreplaceable. Despite how much of the Arsenal fan base want to revise his contribution to the club, 132 goals and our 8th all-time goalscorer doesn’t happen to an ‘injury-prone, over the hill, undisciplined 29 year old’. Most of his injuries were impact in cause and as he has changed his technique and learned what tackles to go for and pull out of, I suspect those days are behind him. Same goes for Song, who led the team on defensive stats last season with 100 tackles and a win % of 73.
Hopefully though, the absence of our Dutch former talisman has the same effect the sale of Thierry Henry had on the team and free the rest. Gervinho appeared to have a relationship with him akin to Hleb and Henry and may be allowed to blossom and hopefully Ramsey can grow no longer being pressured to improve the Dutchman’s goal tally. Hopefully the ugly way our former captain went about his transfer and the fact he went to Man United, a team most Gooners hope there is an added ring in hell for, will spur the team on to prove him wrong.
With our 3 new signings, the team does arguably look better than it did last season, assuming we replace Song. Cazorla looked fantastic against FC Köln and Sunderland and may be the creative hub we have missed since Fabregas. The impetus will be on Arsene Wenger to ensure he is not our only creative hub however and the rumours of Sahin’s arrival along with Jack Wilshere’s return indicates he won’t be. Wilshere will, of course, be ‘like a new signing’ and the return of one of our most talented players will improve the midfield in every aspect. Diaby has hopefully turned a corner and his ability to turn and ghost past players as well as his penchant for a 1-2 were something we missed last season as we looked flat and predictable.
Chamberlain has finished his cameos as a winger and will return to the centre of midfield, hopefully to great effect. Against FC Köln, the inter-play between him and Cazorla was out of this world and it would be great to see the two strike up a great understanding. Currently, by September, our midfield and attack could have 5 players in it who didn’t feature last season. Since our style of play requires a cohesive unit, it may take a few games for this squad to show its true potential. The midfield does appear to be our strength though and hopefully Wenger replaces Song and doesn’t put too much pressure on Coquelin who is rated very highly.
Defensively, we look very strong in the middle. 3 very different and excellent centre-backs to rotate around and Djourou may have his faults, but as a 4th choice centre-back it is hard to find many better. Steve Bould can hopefully have a dramatic influence on Vermaelen in particular and increase his vocal influence as well as decision-making. Koscielny was second only to Kompany in terms of best centre-back last season in my opinion and will look to continue his form with another season’s experience under his hat. We do need cover at full-back though. Sagna had two leg-breaks last season and is approaching the twilight of his career as Jenkinson doesn’t look at all ready to replace him. At left-back, Gibbs and Santos should have an interesting competition all season and both bring different qualities to the side. We will concede goals this season, but a defensive recruitment will make little difference to this, rather our increase in midfield quality should reduce our turnovers and dispossession, decreasing counter-attacks. Szczesny’s poor shot ratio of 64% last season can hopefully rise as well with improved team defending.
Many pundits have already written us off last season, as they do every season. With a few more quality recruitments, however, and if the side gel quickly, we potentially have one of our best sides in recent years. Man City haven’t added to their side and look hamstrung by the massive wages they give to players. Chelsea look unbalanced and Di Matteo may struggle to handle their big signings. United look the strongest contenders, having lost the league on goal difference last season they have signed the leading scorer from last season, one of the most promising creative players in the world and Nemanja Vidic has returned from injury.
Hopefully, Wenger is more willing to change things up this season and approach teams differently rather than look at our own side. Cazorla’s long ball ability (7.4 per game last season) and Giroud’s presence in the air means that we may finally be able to take use of our crosses and set pieces. A Steve Bould special against FC Köln certainly indicates that. Podolski’s off the ball runs, his specialty according to German national team coach Low, and vicious left foot will add a battering ram aspect to our attack we missed and after his display against Sunderland, he may be more suited to the wing and running at the defense rather than with his back to them.
I would predict Cazorla to be our player of the season, but as David Silva and Juan Mata have shown recently, players from Spanish sides can struggle in their first season without a winter break. Chamberlain could have the break-through season that confirms him as one of our key players though. Being realistic, the title still remains out of our grasp, but to hold on to third place and cut the points difference down on the two Manchester clubs, along with success in one of the cups, would be a successful season indeed for this new-look Arsenal side.