Well, all those hoping for quick and easy answers to what our season holds will be disappointed.
There were not enough positives in our 0-0 with Sunderland to have the optimists planning their outfits for the Champions Parade, nor enough negatives for the pessimists to start slashing their wrists.
The performance can probably best be summed up as “OK, in the circumstances.”
Not that that has stopped the media from going overboard with stories about how we’re doomed never to score again without the magic left boot of Brave Sir Robin and how Giroud is our latest French flop.
My favourite headline was from a website called Emirates 24/7 (not an Arsenal site – it’s based in the United Arab Emirates, I think). It said: “Van Persie Haunts Arsenal As Giroud Crumbles.” To whoever wrote it, take a bow son for the best load of hyperbollix on the net yesterday.
And so to the game.
Arsene Wenger gave starts to two of the new boys – Santi Cazorla in the attacking midfield role (despite him having travelled across the Atlantic and back with Spain midweek) and Lukas Podolski in the central striker role.
Well done Big Raddy for getting 10 out of 11 starters right in yesterday’s pre-match (Gervinho instead of Giroud was his only miss).
The home team took the field with a spring in their step and to a noisily positive reception from the crowd. The away team’s clapped-out old Greyhound bus sputtered onto the pitch and parked itself in front of their goal.
From the off it was clear that Sunderland were playing for a 0-0, but there were plenty of positive signs for Arsenal in the early stages.
Cazorla oozed class, controlling the ball instantly, turning on a peseta and always looking for the killer thrust. He’s a real midfield matador and could become our most important player this season, even if he could apply the “coup de gras” to Sunderland’s bull.
Gervinho was offering plenty of threat down the left, beating the Sunderland defenders and getting to the byline on several occasions, one of which gave Cazorla a good shot on goal, although it went narrowly wide.
Walcott, who struggled to create anything, scuffed a decent half chance after a Mertesacker knock-down and Diaby forced a good low save from Filet Mignon in the Sunderland goal.
At one point Walcott got to the touchline and pulled the ball back for the onrushing Podolski in the six yard box, but our new signing was crowded out by a posse of blue shirted defenders.
This was all still in the first half and it was becoming clear that something special would be needed to break down Sunderland’s resistance.
To be fair, the Black Cats did not need nine lives to survive, but their defending was full of commitment and effort. However, along with their time wasting almost from the first whistle, it made zero contribution to the spectacle. We know that many teams will come to the Emirates and will try to frustrate us like Sunderland. If we don’t score early on it gets harder and harder, so we really need the famous Plan B (of which there was no real sign yesterday).
Sunderland had a couple of breakaway chances in the first half – and, given our tendency to concede to the opposition’s first attack last year, I had my heart in my mouth – but a combination of well organised defending and good alertness from the Pole in Goal averted any catastrophes.
The second half was more of the same. Walcott tried an ambitious volley from a tight angle with an unmarked Podolski screaming for the ball in the six yard box; we had a few long range shots (including from free kicks), all of which went high; we tried to pass our way through the packed ranks of the bus boys… but as time wore on a goal seemed ever less likely.
Arsene switched out Podolski for Giroud and Diaby for Ramsey. We continued to press without much end product until Cazorla set up Giroud with a beautiful reverse pass into the box. Our striking (in more ways than one) Frenchman hit it first time and put it wide. It wasn’t a shocking “missed a sitter” moment of the kind trademarked by Fernando Torres last season, but it was a good chance and his shot should have been on target.
That said, it was one attempt and all strikers miss these sorts of chances. In fact they miss them more than they score them – even Brave Sir Robin. I have seen some people already describing Giroud as a flop on the basis of that one miss, which seems (to me at least) a spectacularly inane attitude. He may or may not turn out to be a good striker for us, but screwing one shot wide tells us very little either way.
With the clock running down and the Sunderland bus dented but still standing, we got the one big surprise of the day – a cameo from Andrey Arshavin. The Russian – looking slimmer than last year (which may tell you more about the quality of food back in Russia than about his fitness regime) – looked busy around the Sunderland penalty area, but also, frustratingly, gave away possession in the midfield several times just when we were trying to build momentum.
The final whistle led to Sunderland celebrations – they had got exactly what they came for – and a mixed reaction from the Arsenal faithful. The already-disillusioned felt it was déjà vu, and that we would lack firepower all season (as if we didn’t have any nil-nils when van Persie was playing). The more optimistic felt they had seen promising signs and were prepared to give it time.
You won’t be surprised to know that I’m in the latter camp. We lacked fluidity overall and there was little mutual understanding in and around the Sunderland box, but we created enough chances to have won, we were solid at the back on the very few times Sunderland threatened and there were some very encouraging individual performances.
When Cazorla gets used to the playing style of his new team mates I really expect big things to follow.
Arsene said we lacked sharpness and fluency and our passing wasn’t fast enough. All of which will improve.
Next week we’re away at the Orcs, which will give us a good indication of where we stand. I read somewhere that the FA have decreed that all pitches have to be the same size this year, so the Orcs will not be able to use their habitual tiny pitch trick, designed to assist Rory Delap’s basketball efforts. The little bit of extra room might be just what we need to give them what they deserve.
Szczesny: Sunderland’s timidity meant he had little to do, but on the couple of occasions when he was called on, he did just fine. 7
Jenkinson: I noticed a mixed reaction to Jenks in the comments after the game. For me he didn’t do a lot wrong and put in a steady shift. He’s still learning but does not seem out of his depth. 6
Mertesacker: Typical performance by big Per: confident on the ball and good at anticipating the Sunderland threat. He wasn’t stretched but did what he had to do perfectly well. 7
Vermaelen: His first game as club captain. He was solid at the back and tried to drive us on for a winner. 7
Gibbs: He looked very comfortable defensively. I would have liked to see him him give more support to Gervinho at times, because on several occasions the Ivorian got to the byline with two or three defenders in front of him but did not seem to have the cut-back option on. 7
Arteta: Not his most showy display, but he was typically tidy and disciplined. 7
Diaby: First of all it was great to see him complete 70 or so minutes and look fit. He showed good attacking intent and did a solid job in the midfield. There’ll be better to come, hopefully. 7
Cazorla: Tired a bit in the second half, when the transatlantic jet lag must have kicked in, but he looked a class player throughout. A couple of clever reverse passes into attackers in the box were pure Cesc. MoTM 8
Walcott: Seemed uninvolved for long periods and unable to make much happen. Playing against the parked bus is not his forte and yesterday it showed. There are rumours that he, too, is about to leave. Maybe that played a part too. 5
Gervinho: A strange performance. He saw lots of the ball and was our most consistent attacking threat, mostly down the left. He made a couple of good openings for others, but most of the time his end product went awry. I can’t quite figure him out, but, based on last season and yesterday’s game, I find I’m getting less excited when he takes on defenders because I don’t expect much to come of it any more. On the other hand he is lightning fast and can skin fullbacks for fun and kept trying all game. For me though, the jury’s out. 7
Podolski: Plenty of effort but it didn’t really click for the German/Pole on his debut. It’s clear these players need to get used to each other and maybe Pod will feel more comfortable coming in off the left wing. 6
Giroud: Made good runs and had a great chance to be the hero of the day. Looks promising but time will tell.
Ramsey: Busy as ever. Won’t have changed anyone’s mind about him.
Arshavin: We know he’s gifted and carries a threat. His casual passing in midfield was frustrating.