Arsenal were frustrated in familiar fashion by a stubborn Sunderland outfit in the first game of the season, picking up a solitary point despite dominating affairs.
The talking point of the match is undoubtedly Olivier Giroud’s 80th minute miss which came after some brilliant work by Santi Cazorla, whose reverse pass found the striker completely free, only for the Frenchman to rush his shot and fire well wide.
It was a glaring missed opportunity and makes the whole affair feel like two points dropped.
Since that 6-1 thrashing of Everton in 2009/10’s, Arsenal have contrived to draw the following three opening fixtures of all following seasons. A 1-1 against Liverpool was followed by last season’s goalless draw against Newcastle. Yesterday’s result meant the trend continued, only this time in front of the home fans.
First the positives: the midfield’s defensive graft when required was top notch. Sunderland had only two shots on target the whole match, both coming in the first 11 minutes of the match. The first saw McLean played into the box only to be stopped by an alert Szczesny, before Jack Colback hit a regulation effort from distance. From then on, it was effectively all Arsenal.
Mikel Arteta played a more reserved, deep-lying role in Alex Song’s absence, and I felt his positional discipline went a long way to ensuring a clean sheet. Abou Diaby completed 70 minutes without complaint, while Gervinho’s good form continued from preseason.
But the star of the show was debutant Cazorla. The pocket-sized midfielder was running the show in the middle of the park, zipping passes everywhere and shooting on sight.
After Szczesny saved Colback’s shot, Cazorla sprang into action and warmed keeper Mignolet’s hands with a stinging left-foot drive. The midfielder then set Gervinho free down the left, who dinked into the box well before passing back to Cazorla, who couldn’t angle his drive correctly.
His willingness to shoot is encouraging and it seems something on the training ground has rubbed off on the team as Gervinho, Diaby, Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski all had attempts from outside the box.
For new boy Podolski, it was a frustrating affair as he struggled to get into effective positions in the box and constantly came deep to find the ball. Theo Walcott did well on one occassion when he looked to feed Podolski from the byline, but otherwise his control let him down throughout the match and his off-the-ball runs were all over the place.
Szczesny: 7 – Alert to the danger of McLean with a crucial save on four minutes and another regulation stop on 11. Enjoyed a quiet game for the remainder of the match.
Jenkinson: 7– Some early jitters aside, did fine.
Mertesacker: 7.5 – Composed on the ball and provided a calming influence along the back line.
Vermaelen: 7 – Debut as captain proper. Dovetailed well with Mertesacker and only went on one glory run that I could remember.
Gibbs: 7– Solid on the left and looked a little more confident than some of last season’s performances.
Arteta: 7 .5 – Put in some beautiful sliding tackles, bossed the place about from a deeper position and provided regular service to Cazorla.
Diaby: 5.5 – Good to have 70 minutes under his belt but never got to grips with the game. Had one scuffed, goal-bound shot that was well saved by Mignolet.
Cazorla: 8.5 – A gem of a player. Matches enthusiasm with undoubted skill. Shoots from distance, and can cut defences apart with very deft passes.
Gervinho: 7.5 – Looks pretty confident at the moment. His wing play is bamboozling a few defences now. Just needs to get a more assured pass and some shooting boots.
Walcott: 5 – A non-entity for much of the match. Sunderland’s deep line meant his pace was negated. Tactics like this reveal the one-dimensional nature to his game. He needs a ‘Plan B’ more than Arsenal ever did.
Podolski: 5.5 – Struggled on debut but not for a lack of effort. Positional play should develop as he gets more bedded in.
Subs: Ramsey: 6 – Looked assured off the bench. Neat passes and continued Arsenal’s dominance of possession.
Giroud: 6 – Gave the team more shape when he came on and linked up well with the wingers. Black marks for missing the match-winning chance.
Arshavin: 6.5 – Made some telling passes and looked a bit more lively than when we last saw him.
So on the whole, a frustrating affair that didn’t quite live up to expectations. We’re paying for our lack of preseason games and a lot of players are still finding their rhythm. This is particularly true of the forwards, but when you compare our travails to those of Spurs and Liverpool, things don’t look quite as bad.
I really think the squad needs to start looking into a 4-4-2 formation as its alternate option for when teams come and park the bus like Sunderland. A 4-5-1 will outnumber our midfield and encourage the opposition forward at first, but it would allow us a better counter-attacking game to break at pace once back in possession. However, there looks to be some potential with Giroud up front who found himself in better positions than Podolski, and was able to distribute the ball around the box like a proper targetman.
With a win predicted, the Hype Meter starts off in underwhelming circumstances, but with one game played, the verdict is a mathematical aberration. This thing should develop a bit more as the season progresses.
That’s all from me. Apologies for the late post – I was cavorting around the coast for the weekend and was stranded from any blogging platform for 24 hours. With strong rumours over Nuri Sahin’s arrival and bids for Yann M’Vila (possible) and Fernando Llorente (fanciful), there should be more news to report on tomorrow.
Keep calm and carry on.