This summer has flown by so quickly I’m finding it hard to digest the fact that the new season kicks off today. But based on previous experience it’s not hard to understand that for most fans competitive action involving Arsenal could not begin soon enough. Let’s get straight to the game at hand.
It’s nigh on impossible to predict just how either side will perform in the first game of the season. Pre-season form is hardly a reliable measure and estimating the impact of transfers, especially the kind that Villa have made, is going to be a hard task even for Paul Lambert.
The Gunners are in a familiar boat, regrettably you might say, so it’s a little easier to anticipate the patterns of play we are likely to see. I haven’t had a chance to note the outstanding observations from the previous season but one of those was the improvement and importance of the collective defending.
Since the start of last season many players talked about working on the ‘shape of the team’, and we did see the results in the form of a compact display in many games, which, while it came at the cost of offensive potency, did result in vital points. On the other hand, the search for balance between an incisive attack and a stable defence was a season long quest that didn’t really end on any sort of a definitive note.
This pre-season I saw the team express it’s offensive qualities in patches that produced enthralling football but those were also marked with defensive lapses. At the same time there were periods of composure and control at the back (long periods against City for example) when the team seemed at ease without the ball.
The question is, what will we see at the Emirates today? At the time of writing I honestly can’t decide what mood the players will be in. If they are really confident we could see them coming out with greater offensive exuberance and that in turn will undoubtedly give Villa a few chances on the break. A more conservative mentality, that was so useful at the end of last season, could see a tight opening period with the hosts shading it towards the end phases.
Given the absence of Mikel Arteta and players like Diaby or Coquelin who brought in certain helpful defensive traits when they played in 12-13, I’m conditioning myself to be prepared for a few lapses in positioning and decision making from the midfield that will expose the back five. It won’t be a surprise if Lambert’s side score a goal or two tomorrow as long as they take their chances.
That means the Gunners will need two or more goals to win this game. Giroud showed an improved awareness of the goalposts during the pre-season games and Ramsey made some excellent offensive contributions. Walcott wasn’t quite as clinical as I’d like him to be during the friendly fixtures but his standout individual qualities can always be decisive. Add the talents of Wilshere, Cazorla, and Rosicky into the mix and there is sufficient reason to be optimistic about Arsenal’s chances against the Villa defence.
Wenger’s choices in midfield will be telling. Ramsey and Wilshere are exceptional talents with big futures ahead of them but will they have the maturity to curb their instincts and choose their moments for maximum impact if chosen to play in the deeper areas, particularly in tandem?!
The concern is not that Arsenal do not possess enough players to create and score goals against a young visiting side but more that an imbalanced midfield could give the visitors an early impetus while sucking the confidence out of the hosts, particularly if the crowd gets restless and starts heckling. It could easily turn into a very long 90 minutes if that dreaded handbrake comes on.
The back five can protect the goal as long as they get requisite cover from those in front. The entire team has to defend as a unit, something they showed they were capable of last season. Mertesacker’s leadership will be tested if the midfield duo in front is inexperienced and impetuous.
Wenger could also compensate for the loss of Arteta by asking Sagna to take on a more conservative role. By staying deeper he could cover his flank and probably free Koscielny up to cover behind Gibbs. However, I think the bigger problem could come from the fact that Benteke is likely to pull towards the left and could then link up with teammates to release Weimann or Agbonlahor in behind. Mertesacker would have a very hard time against the pace of the attackers if the Belgian constantly engages Koscielny in duels. Again, Sagna’s presence in deeper areas and his ability to track the runners before making vital interventions could prove decisive.
With all that in mind, I’m going to watch the first game to see – 1) How much confidence the players have, 2) The kind of fitness and concentration levels they show and the quality of their performance late in the game, 3) Their ability to hold on to or turn around the result depending on the circumstances, and 4) Whether the crowd has a positive or negative impact on the performance.
Arsene has a few choices to make for his starting eleven. The back five should probably pick themselves, although Fabianski might say he deserves a start ahead of Szczesny.
The midfield is where the big question marks are. I’d not pick Cazorla with Wilshere and Ramsey. Rosicky would add a bit more discipline without forcing Santi into a conservative role. Little Mozart is also more natural at dropping back if his younger cohorts dash forward more often than necessary. Is he fully fit?
I’d like to see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs – Ramsey, Rosicky, Wilshere – Walcott, Giroud, Cazorla.
The upcoming weeks have some crucial fixtures and confidence could be a big factor. Any kind of a performance/result combination that helps on that front should be good enough. Obviously, a win will always help and the bigger the better, but that’s not the only option. For instance, if the team completely dominates the game and only picks up a point because Guzan produced some miracle saves, then that too could help with the confidence. Similarly, a late turnaround or a dramatic comeback to even tie the game can generate positive momentum. In the same vein, a late collapse, even if it’s just a draw, would be just as crushing as any defeat.
Right now I can imagine an easy win, a ground out result, a score draw, and a bitterly disappointing defeat all happening with equal probability. Some fans will be a lot more optimistic and others will take a grim view. Whatever you chose, don’t lose sight of the relevant details and don’t forget to enjoy the game!Follow @goonerdesi