Arsenal has a crunch match against Liverpool up at Anfield on Sunday (8:30 EST, Fox Soccer Channel). Both teams have yet to win a game this season, although it’s not quite crisis intervention time, as it’s only the third game in. Still, Arsenal has yet to score a goal, which is worrying since we just sold the player who scored 40% of our goals last season. Coupled with that, we sold the one who provided the most assists. Also, Liverpool nearly beat the champions last weekend in their 2-2 home draw with Manchester City. I don’t know that we could have done the same. In fact, I’m pretty sure we couldn’t. However, I don’t know that Liverpool could do so again, either.
Liverpool get Daniel Agger back from suspension, while reports have Laurent Koscielny in contention to return to the central defence, with Wojciech Szczesny facing a fitness test on Saturday. Liverpool have bolstered their ranks with the likes of the impressive Joe Allen (Brendan Rodgers’ playmaker at Swansea) and almost-Gunner Nuri Sahin, on loan from Madrid. More on Sahin to follow. They’ve also shipped out Charlie Adam to Stoke and loaned Jay Spearing to Bolton, Andy Carroll to West Ham. As a team stacked with dead wood ourselves, we could learn a thing or two there. But surely they can’t dislike Adam so much as to subject him to the knuckledraggers at Stoke.
Arsenal embark on a tough stretch of sorts. After Liverpool, we get a potential breather against Southampton at home, yet whenever we think we’ve got it in the bag, we blow it. Next we travel to the Eithad to play City and all our former players, swiftly followed by Chelsea at home. That would be the Chelsea of Hazard, Oscar, Mata and more. The team that’s been kicking ass while we’ve gone goalless. The team stacked with all the young stars we missed out on. Damn you, Chelsea and your 2012 Champions League medal and your sesquiquintillion quadrillions!
Of these four, most would expect us to get three points against Southampton, but to do that we will have to actually score. And even if we’re thinking we’ll scoreless-draw our way through the season (Invincibles Mk II), that would assume our “watertight” defense will hold up forever. We conceded 49 goals last season and have brought in no new defenders. We sold Alex Song to Barcelona. Everyone in the back 5 has another year under their belt, which is great and commendable and tentatively encouraging, but without a total rethink, the defensive coaching nous of Steve Bould can only go so far.
Anyhoo, let’s put it in perspective. Rewind a year and you’ll clearly see the comparatively kickass position in which we currently find ourselves. Not so much because now is so kickass, but this time last year we were bodyslammed into the deepest nadir in modern memory.
Favorite son Cesc Fabregas had just left, talented ugly stepchild Samir Nasri edged as close to the exit as humanly possible, essentially melding into the exit as he crammed into the tiny space at the threshold. Wilshere had injured his Achilles in the meaningless Emirates Cup. We’d drawn against Newcastle, which saw Gervinho get sent off and a three match ban for Song in light of video replay. We had then proceeded to lose 2-0 to Liverpool at home, Emmanuel Frimpong shown red and sent off. None of the transfer-deadline reinforcements had arrived. We relied on Robin van Persie, Mr. Glass, to stay fit for the season, which anyone could tell you was stupidity meets crazy talk (and yet it came to pass…). For Manchester United, like tomorrow, the third match of the season, Arsene was selecting players we’d never heard of from the academy to deputize: Nico Yennaris, Ignasi Miquel, Francis Coquelin, etc. Carl Jenkinson was playing in the Premier League for the first time. Armand Traore was one of our “experienced heads” at the back. And for good measure, Wenger threw on Oxlade-Chamberlain for an ill-timed debut, chucked onto the park for a trial by inferno fire as we were well into the the calamitous, humiliating 8-2 mega mauling at Old Trafford.
So, a year on and it’s looking a bit better, yes? We’re in the enviable position of staying on track for an undefeated season, having kept clean sheets in every game thus far. Okay, but in seriousness, the defense is looking better, especially factoring in the return of Koscielny and Szczesny. Well done to Vito Mannone at Stoke, incidentally. First time he didn’t cock it all up and make it go all pear shaped (I read too many British sites). That said, please return to the bench now, Vito.
We’ve lost two of our three best players for the second year running, except we opted not to wait until deadline day with the shadow of the executioner’s blade hovering above throughout the month of August. “Panic buy” Mikel Arteta has us rethinking how a midfield three can go about its defensive duties with precision tackling in a small form factor as opposed to brute force. Panic purchase Per Mertesacker, accused of being too slow, ponderous and clumsy, has combined with captain Thomas Vermaelen to shut down the opposition goal spree, meaning that to match last year’s total, we’ll need to ship 49 goals in the remaining 36 matches, as opposed to amortizing the lot over 38.
Last weekend, Stoke resumed booing Aaron Ramsey for intentionally inserting his leg in the exact spot where Ryan Shawcross was innocently sliding along with his feet out, breaking Ramsey’s leg all over the hills and valleys of the Brittania pitch in 2010. The ingrate got stretchered off and didn’t think twice about the mess of bone fragments and blood he’d strewn all over the grass.
As for no goals yet this season, it is easy, simplistic and relatively accurate to point to the sale of Robin van Persie. However, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud each moved closer to “breaking their duck,” “getting off the mark” and/or “opening their Arsenal account.” Insert appropriate Britishism for scoring one’s first goal. Yet you never hear of cherries popped. So prim.
The offense hasn’t yet totally clicked, but regardless the 5’6 Santi Cazorla has shined most gleamingly since season’s start. Imagine how he’ll look when all the pistons are firing. Cazorla in particular seems the best signing we’ve made in more or less forever. Both he and Mikel Arteta, only slightly less close to the ground, dealt with the physicality of Stoke excellently, proving that positioning can indeed be more important than thuggery. The only drawback is that Arteta is so dependable and consistent that we want him in more forward positions, especially if we’re looking to smash ducks.
During his Everton days, Arteta always looked technically gifted and dangerous in the final third, with several goals and excellent assists. Last season with us, he played a more restrained and disciplined role, steady midfield presence distributing forward with passing precision (completion percentage usually 90% or higher).
While the back four looked solid, if not quite ironclad watertight, Arteta may deserve the most credit for our two clean sheets. We’ve hobbled him with regard to goal-scoring possibilities, but with his tactical positioning and determination to win the ball–four interceptions against Sunderland, three against Stoke–his lack of imposing physical dominance is overcome by his smart play and well-timed challenges, he’s proving a better defensive midfielder than Song. It would be terrific if Diaby could be doing that, though, in order to free Arteta for his ball distribution talents and linkup with Cazorla. Seeing them together makes you wonder how much better we would have fared with Fabregas and Arteta together, or perhaps Fabregas and Xabi Alonso a few years earlier. Alas, roads not taken, lives not lived.
Abou Diaby killed the momentum at times, not least of which at the edge of the 6-yard box where he spurned the opportunity for a match winner. His performance reminded fans that he’s not (always) a bad player when actually playing, and two games on the trot for a man with his injury record is promising. I write this tentatively and with fingers quintuple crossed. (Single-finger typing.)
Both fullbacks did well, largely due to good cover from Arteta. Carl Jenkinson will need to continue to do so until Bacary Sagna’s fit again, barring a late transfer on that front. On the left, Kieran Gibbs has done well to solidify his place in front of that cuddly Brazilian jokester with a penchant for high-speed chases.
The team is slowly coming together. Giroud looked robust and every bit his reported 6’4 as he repelled the dirty tactics and refused to get pushed around Stoke, which was excellent to see. He looked generally much more in his element than in the opening day match against Sunderland. Podolski nearly decimated his duck, etc., until a short-range shot got blocked by a handy Stoke arm. Penalty award denied.
Giroud will score, and once he does, he’ll continue the trend. It took Thierry Henry nine games before he first scored, and things seemed to go relatively okay for him in the long run. Giroud came within inches of sailing a wonder strike over Begovic’s head and into goal from 40 yards, which would have been insane. You could point out that passing to Ramsey would have been the better choice, but that seems a bit churlish.
Despite two underwhelming 0-0 draws, a point at Stoke is not a bad result. The same can’t be said for Sunderland. Ultimately, Arsenal has two points. One could also look at it as four points dropped against mid table teams, but again, churlish.
As for the fates of Gervinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott, if Podolski locks down his spot on the left wing with Giroud central, Gervinho and Walcott will probably battle for the wide right, with the Ox more likely in the central midfield, which Wenger has previously specified as his ultimate destination. This creates a rich midfield choice of Cazorla, Arteta, Ramsey, Diaby, and Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky when again fit, as well as former academy kids Coquelin, Frimpong and potentially Yennaris, unless he’s slotted for fullback cover. Sahin might have added yet more, but such was not to be.
Which brings us to a meditation on the misleading “Liverpool beat Arsenal to Sahin” headlines. We were in pole position and we elected to not take him on loan, given his wage demands (£120,000 a week), the couple million loan fee and non-option to buy at the end of the season. Liverpool conceded on every demand and landed the player. They pay a heavy price for the ability to make him a better player for Real Madrid, at the expense of blocking in-team personnel or directing those funds on a new player who’s actually theirs. If Liverpool had succeeded in getting him for the terms we were after, that would be like for like. They did not. In reality, he chose Real Madrid over Arsenal, as would just about any player. Sahin is a great player and will improve Liverpool, no doubt. They are paying a not inconsiderable price for one season of his services, however.
After the post-match handshake Tony Pulis jogged across the pitch with a shit-eating grin on his face, clearly pleased with whatever he’d said to Wenger. He claims in the media that he is powerless to stop Stoke fans from booing Ramsey, yet he has never tried. He constantly talks about how hard it was for the player—Ryan Shawcross, not Ramsey—and praises Shawcross’ bravery in soldiering on (uninjured). While Ramsey lay in bed for a year, Shawcross drew a line under the (for him) difficult incident. Pulis rewarded him with the captainship for this bravery.
The match Sunday could be great. Let’s hope that it is, to the tune of a goal bonanza. In our favor, to clarify.