Arsenal played out their first game to a 0-0 draw against Sunderland at home. This was done against an omnimous backdrop of selling their top goalscorer and captain to Manchester United. I’ve decided to write short pieces on games I watched and so here’s giving this a try. It’s a personal opinion on what I liked / didn’t like. The idea is to keep the reaction objective.
It was a typical Arsenal game. Tons of possession, tons of shots (mostly off target), opponent puts 6-7 in their penalty box and almost always 11 man behind the ball. Yet, no goals. Papers will write tomorrow on how we would have won 1-0 if RVP was around.
I’ll address this right here. Sunderland has always been a tough opponent for Arsenal. We barely beat them even with RVP in the side. It took Henry last season to win the game late in the second half via an Arshavin cross. RVP did not muster a goal from open play against Sunderland last season.
I’m not denying that RVP is a world class striker but having him around doesn’t mean he scores in every game. RVP did undergo a 7-8 match goal-less streak and missed crucial sitters such as the possible equalizer against Milan. Basing one game about him missing is a knee jerk reaction. Of course, if we starting drawing blanks for the next 2-3 games then yes, the papers will have a valid point.
The Steve Bould Effect
Let me start with the positives. I was very pleased with the way the team performed off the ball. In games like these (and in fact this did happen twice last season against Sunderland), we tend to have all of the ball, go up like nuts and then lose because of a single counter attack. That was the classic Arsenal loss. This time all but one Sunderland counter attack was nullified really quickly.
TV5 remained disciplined hanging back, Mertersacker was quick to clean up and the most improved player in defensive duties for me was Gervinho. He tracked back 3-4 times at full speed to hook the ball away when Gibbs was pushing upfront. This is why he gets selected ahead of Arshavin. Also, Diaby and Podolski stood out in pressuring Sunderland when we lost the ball. Also Gibbs seemed to be sharper defensively, putting through accurate sliding tackles quite a number of times.
In short, every time Sunderland won the ball, we got it back within 10-15 seconds causing them to be unable to string more than 3-4 passes. There was only one slip up early in the match that WS1 dealt with swiftly. Besides that, he was a spectator because defensive duties were carried out properly.
We played without a traditional DM and it worked well because everyone did their job. Sunderland was denied space really quickly and there was hardly a heart attack moment for me in this match. This is really very much improved from last season.
Arsene had a point when he said that the Gunners were ready and well organized for the new season.
Attacking – Cazorla & Gervinho
Our attacking play was a real 50-50. It started off badly and it was clear that the new boys need more time settling in. Podolski seemed to not instinctively know where Gervinho would be. Understanding between Cazorla and Theo was also seriously lacking. A good number of misplaced weighted passes went astray. To their defense, the first team had played only 45 mins in a friendly together. The Asian tour did not feature our key players who were rested back in London.
Cazorla’s performance stood out nevertheless. He created more than 5 chances and had 3 long range efforts of his own that went close. His link up play gradually improved quickly after the first few moments have getting a feel of where his team mates were. He is really really tiny though. But his passing and creativity was a joy to watch. This guy won’t have trouble settling in.
Gervinho, who handled his defensive duties well, improved over time. He started off losing the ball easily but made up for it by tracking back. Past the half an hour mark, he made serious dents in dribbling and cutting into the box. More than thrice he dribbled past 3-4 players only to shoot at another 2-3 players all piled up in the box. It was a great effort from ‘forehead’. He needs to get into this mode quicker. First half an hour was awful.
Podolski had plenty of effort but was denied space very quickly by the withdrawn Sunderland defense. I’m not sure how he is recovering but he ran his heart out chasing down nearly anyone around him who had the ball. His link up play was good when he got a better feel of where his team mates were. I felt that Podolski should have started off left in a 4-3-3 or made to play as a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-2.
Podolski is not a natural out-and-out striker and it showed today. He needs to play behind one.
Giroud missed an excellent chance to nail the game but was otherwise performed well in a short substitute performance. His positioning is good and whether he is able to convert when counted on will determine whether he nails his spot or turns a Chamakh. I won’t pass judgement over his first substitute performance.
Then and Now
I felt the team stepped up from last season. In the past season, the Arsenal you watched was one that was easily torn open on the counter, lacked penetration which required our DM to try to be creative. Last season, we had 2 things going for us. A solid forward who put in half chances and a solid keeper who made up for the awful mess our defense was shoving at him. In between, we had a massive midfield problem that was only temporarily solved by an Arteta – Rosicky (and at times Yossi) combination which lasted for like 6 matches. This time, that gap is now fixed both by having better centre mids and also working on the defensive shape of the team.
It is clear we have no player upfront that is experienced in the EPL. Podolski had his 66 minutes and Giroud had his 24 minutes of EPL action. The fact that Wenger still chose to field these inexperienced 2 before Chamakh and Park should be a signal to ship the latter two out. It is clear we have a hole to fix and our options are to get Poldi and Giroud to find their feet quickly or to buy an EPL tested player (no one available). Even if Arsenal do an un-Arsenal like move and splash money to sign Llorente or Hulk – the same issue will occur. Our new forwards need a bedding in time with the EPL and also with their own team mates.
Song’s move to Barcelona has been confirmed and I’m glad that has happened. I don’t bad mouth a player when he leaves but I always believed for a couple of seasons that Song was the weak link and today even Diaby showed he could cover Song’s role well. We didn’t give away a freekick to Larsson at the edge of the box today for a reason. If Arsenal can get 15m for him, that would be a really good offer. Song is kind of a jack of all trades, maybe that is what Barca wants. I hope Arsenal reinvests that into a better player.
The RVP talk swirls and sells and I’d give my final 2 cents here. I expect RVP to have at least a good season at United. Won’t be at all surprised if he continues to bang in 20+ goals and wins some silverware. RVP’s comments before and after the move lacked respect for the club and was rather unclassy. The ‘little boy’ comments he made after signing was down to either him being really excited or trying to endear himself to rival fans. After all, RVP has been photographically documented as a supporter of Arsenal when he was a young boy (long before he moved to Arsenal). When you support Arsenal at that period (similar to when I came to support them due to underdog status), the little boy inside you will never scream Man Utd.
That said, I agree that RVP signing for United is a step up because let’s be honest, Arsenal have not been on the same level as City, United and Chelsea for a very long time. Most Arsenal fans are stuck in the golden late 90s early 2000s era where AW had an excellent record against Ferguson and we even won one of our titles at Old Trafford. Those days have long gone. We are no longer the top of the line season contenders the way City, United and Chelsea are. Arsenal fans have to be realistic.
Whether we move up or continue a revolving-door-selling-club profile is up to the board and AW. If we get our team together and reinforce it with quality and crucially at a similar age range, we will stop that rot. I think we are going that route especially if we bring in one more. Also, we must be ready to flog non performers quickly.
So there you have it. This ended up being longer than I would want it to be but well it’s the first game so everyone is both excited and anxious.
The timeline is till November to see if Poldi and Giroud can integrate well. This is much shorter than the usual ‘give them 1 season’ because they are not kids and we need them firing quickly. If you want a point of reference, Henry took 8 months and RVP took a full season to adjust. Else, EPL based striking reinforcements have to come in during January. If Diaby, Wilshere and Rosicky returns and manages to maintain fitness, the midfield looks really good with especially with first stringers Arteta and Cazorla. The likelihood is that Diaby will get injured and Wilshere is still too young to put his body on the line. In that case, 1 shrewd signing is needed in the center of the park.
Not much can be said of the positives and negatives of this match because it’s a new team and it’s a new season. As an Arsenal supporter I look forward optimistically but rest assured, if the team has issues or is performing badly – I won’t write favorably.