So this is it, a new day, a new season and Saturday 3pm…wait, no, 5.30pm brings about the first of thirty-eight games to decide Arsenal’s domestic fate. With that extra couple of hours to while away, this morning’s playlist, Timebomb is here or in the right sidebar under Dad’s Jukebox. Rather like the new season, it’s an old friend, revisited and revamped.
One old friend we won’t be seeing today is Tony Pulis. Having saved Palace from what seemed to be an inevitable relegation, Pulis jumped ship following a disagreement with the board. What long-term impact that has on their season remains to be seen and frankly all I really care about is the impact it has on today. Hopefully, a demoralising one.
The season is upon us, the media in Aloysius’ thrall to the extent that Jose Mourinho felt obliged to pop up, squeal, “I’m over here. I have a hard job, they have it easy“, only shutting up when someone asked him how many trophies he won last season, at which point he flounced off, asking everyone to judge him in May. Frankly, nothing in modern football is new…
Arsène observed yesterday that he would have preferred an extra week for pre-season to get his World Cup winning trio fit for action and commonsense should have dictated to both the Premier League and UEFA that their tournaments begin later than they have. Next summer is free of international tournaments so why there had to be a mid-August start is as baffling as it is easy to understand; it wasn’t their World Cup and as a result, they don’t care a fig about whether their biggest assets – the players – are horses that have been revived to be flogged to death once more.
One player who has taken that on board and possibly that his international days might be numbered, is Per Mertesacker. With more than one hundred caps, a World Cup winners medal & a couple of third places, as well as a European Championship runners-up medal, he has called it a day. Perhaps he genuinely wants to devote his time to Arsenal, to winning the title and more, perhaps he read the wall and having missed out on the final, saw writing he didn’t like. Whatever the case, the club benefits and that is something which can’t be argued with at all.
On hearing that news, I found my thoughts wandering in Tomas Rosicky’s direction. The Czech shows no sign of following Mertesacker’s suit, indeed quite the opposite according to interviews he gave before the end of last season. His rationale is that his ‘footballing body’ is a couple of years younger than his physical age due to the lengthy absences he endured as a result of injury. Being just six caps short of his century, his international retirement seems unlikely this season and with the Czechs having a decent chance of finishing second behind the Netherlands in the Euro2016 qualifiers, Karel Poborsky’s record of 118 caps for his country is within his grasp if he stays injury free. Arsenal would benefit, for whilst Rosicky is not going to be in the starting XI regularly, he is the creative spark on the bench that can change games. Arsène will not want that opportunity risked on the international stage and I wonder if his patriarchal benevolence – I doubt he has put any pressure on Rosicky to think of club first – would be replicated elsewhere?
But they are side issues to today’s main event, the visit of Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Having dropped just twelve points against lower placed opposition, it’s crucial that Arsenal get off to a flying start today. A repeat of last season’s opening day reverse against Villa might not provoke as strong a reaction given that the club has spent money for most of the summer but it will be unwelcome nonetheless. Arsène admitted that he was still looking for additions to his squad and whilst the media immediately latched onto the defence, the manager actually observed that, “Numbers-wise we are maybe a bit short in certain areas,” before adding, “but the depth of the squad is very good.”
I don’t think there is much argument that when fully fit, Wenger has more depth this season than previously in midfield and short-term alternatives to Olivier Giroud in attack. Defence and midfield though still concern with Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini enjoying the same skewed protective logic as Giroud; everything pulls back to ability not whether the alternatives are entirely different types of players, which for the most part, they are.
The absence of the German trio offers one problem over the next seven days for Arsène, namely Laurent Koscielny’s fitness. The failure to add a new centre back in good time for the new season means that if the French international does not pass muster today or aggravates his Achilles problem, the pairing is going to be Nacho Monreal and Calum Chambers. I understand how Palace’s woes make it seem unlikely to be a problem this afternoon – how the inherent arrogance of supporting a big club shines through in that instance – but in Turkey this week, I am not so sure that risks can be taken. That scenario would probably mean Per Mertesacker being rushed back for the Champions League qualifier but not today. Indeed, Wenger was quick to point out Monreal’s strengths as a fourth centre back which suggests he is preparing the ground for that to be the case as the season wears on.
But of course, we’re not that interested in seeing the defence. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival has turned attention to attack and a match such as today seems the perfect way to introduce himself to the English game. Last weekend’s Community Shield will have given him ideas about using those twinkle toes against Premier League defences but his subtlety and guile will be needed as I would expect the visitors to defend resolutely, hassle, harry and generally make life difficult. It’s that question that Sanchez will be pivotal in providing the answers to.
It also begs the question of whether Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Jack Wilshere will complete the midfield quartet. Ox enjoyed a scoring return against the same opponents last season where his pace undid the obdurate defending Arsenal encountered and Arsène has to weigh that against involving Wilshere’s knack for intricacy in tight spaces and willingness to scrap for possession. It is that and the balance Jack will bring – allowing Aaron Ramsey more of a free reign to attack – which will swing matters in Wilshere’s favour.
The line-up I expect Arsène to field is:
Szczesny; Debuchy, Chambers, Koscielny, Gibbs; Arteta; Sanchez, Ramsey, Wilshere, Cazorla; Giroud
Whatever XI is fielded, a flying start is going to be essential. If the Premier League is going to be as tight as people expect, maximising points against the teams outside of the top six is going to be vital and dropping points on the opening day is not the way to start. Nor do I expect Arsenal to drop points either, with a three goal margin of victory at the final whistle.
From The Vaults
So to the first of the new feature, match reports from the history bank. Arsenal and Palace have never met competitively in August so today’s history book fell open on the page of a friendly played at Selhurst Park on 7th August 1970, the first double season.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.