It’s all back. The League, the buzz, the anticipation, even typing that blasé headline has me tingling, everything’s back.
Arsenal start at home. Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland provide the first hurdle. Big games are just around the corner and the transfer scene is very much alive, but once again we’re at the time where the next game means more than anything else.
In his interview with Arsenal Player, Arsene said that Arsenal are not completely ready physically. Last week Lukas Podolski had said he’ll take two weeks to hit his peak. Given the amount of time spent in Asia where, as Vermaelen acknowledged, the club weren’t able to focus as much on training as they might have wanted, Arsenal will start this season a notch or two below their best.
The visitors might be in a similar situation themselves. Their pre-season took them on trips to South Korea and Sweden and has seen the Black Cats win only 1 game in 6.
The impact of physical preparation is not likely to be visible early in the game but could prove decisive in the dying minutes. It’s certainly something worth keeping an eye on. Substitutions might play a vital role if some players tire.
Broadly speaking, there won’t be any tactical surprises in this game. We know how Martin O’Neill likes to play and Wenger is not going to tinker with his approach significantly. Speaking with Arsenal Player Le Boss reiterated his side’s basic approach i.e. play the ball out from the back with clever movement and quick passing.
I expect Sunderland will form their first line of defence around the centre line and test Arsenal initially by applying some pressure. If the Gunners seem hesitant or sluggish with their passing the visitors will try to stay up the pitch and force a mistake through aggressive pressing. Quality ball rotation from the hosts will naturally push them back. This will be the first big challenge of the match for Arsenal. Will most of the play take place in the middle third (which could leave the defence exposed on a quick transition) or will it take place in the attacking third from Arsenal’s point of view? The answer will depend on Arsenal’s technical quality and also on the front four’s ability to find/create space.
We saw excellent combination play from the Gunners in Cologne but Sunderland will provide a tougher challenge to the midfield as they’ll be tighter on each individual and go in strong on each challenge. Arsenal have a number of newcomers who might find the intensity and physicality a bit surprising, at least initially.
Sunderland’s strengths are in their organization and work ethic which can negate Arsenal’s technical advantage while their threats are likely to come from counter-attacks (mostly down the flanks) or set-pieces.
It will be interesting to see the line-up that Arsene selects. It’s difficult to judge whether the midweek internationals and related travel will have an impact on the selection. For instance. Giroud played around 74 minutes with France. Does that mean he won’t be fresh for this game or did that just provide him better match practice and physical preparation? Similarly, Cazorla travelled all the way to Puerto Rico and probably arrived a day later than others who played closer to base.
I’d start with the same front four that played the first half in Germany last weekend. That means Giroud in the centre, Podolski on the left, Theo on the right, and Cazorla as the advanced midfielder.
With Song likely to leave, the midfield duo behind these four could very well be Diaby and Arteta, assuming the Spaniard has recovered from the niggle that kept him on the sidelines in Cologne.
Szczesny – Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Diaby, Cazorla, Arteta – Walcott, Giroud, Podolski.
In my opinion this is the most balanced starting eleven from the available options. Some people might point to the fact that Gervinho has had a good pre-season and already has Premier League experience but I prefer Prinz Poldi on the left. The German international is technically superior, has a better instinct for goals and gets into excellent positions, and he will be more adept at drifting between the lines and linking with Cazorla.
Gervinho is faster and is the better dribbler but he might not do so well in terms of ball retention and movement when marked tightly and consistently.
That said, I won’t be surprised if Arsene wants to take his time and introduce the new players gradually. There is also the possibility that Podolski will want the central role considering his relative seniority. So there’s a good chance we could see Gervinho on the left and Giroud on the bench.
Some Gooners might also have a view that Coquelin is the better option at right back but I think it’s best to have a specialist in the side even if he’s a youngster who has shown certain weaknesses defensively.
Ramsey is another player who’ll be hoping to get a start, especially after an impressive Olympics campaign with team GB, but he’ll probably have to be satisfied with strengthening a bench that will also include AOC and either Gervinho or Giroud. That should give the Gunners additional firepower in case things are going according to plan.
It’s difficult to see how this game will pan out as the key attacking players haven’t played in the Premiership before. It’s not difficult to see Podolski getting chances to score and Cazorla being the creative hub but space and time will certainly be at a premium and these players will have to produce a performance close to their best to make an impact.
The Gunners have a lot to prove defensively. So far there’s been a lot of talk about positional work being done in training but the words will ring hollow unless they can translate that into a solid performance on the pitch.
I’m looking forward to the game with an open mind and cautious optimism.Follow @goonerdesi