As the sun blazed in the north London sky, there was a sense of déjà vu. A new season, north-Eastern opposition, a goalless draw, a World Class player departed, another key squad player close to leaving. That is where the stories diverge. Arsenal are in a better position to deal with the changes this season, two weeks of the transfer window remain and the club is moving in the market. According to reports this morning, Arsène has picked up his daily baguette and sundry groceries, along with Nuri Sahin from Real Madrid. Presumably flights will be timed so that he can drop Alex Song at the airport and pick up Sahin. It saves parking fees and mileage claims.
Sunderland were as predicted in yesterday’s preview, obdurate opponents. It’s a tough job, this punditry lark. That said, they opened brightly – relatively speaking – but their initial attacking endeavours faded as they ceded possession to Arsenal and retreated into two rows of defensive barriers. Avoiding defeat was their aim and that was achieved, rather too comfortably in some passages of play.
As Arsenal dominated possession, Santi Cazorla shone brightly. Post-match the manager suggested that the Spaniard was feeling the effect of long distance international duty; if that is the case, Premier League beware. His darting runs were the spark as the Arsenal midfield flared into attack, his speed of thought at times far quicker than the movement of his colleagues. Gervinho was equally creative, particularly in the second half when his trickery created chances for Podolski and Gibbs. Walcott, by contrast, was subdued, an in-and-out performance.
There was a distinctly opening day feel; these matches are either gloriously high-scoring or the bridge between the pre-season and the second weekend when sharpness generally returns. The over-riding feeling is that there is more to come from this team, second gear barely reached let alone fully engaged.
The visitors provided an early wake-up call to the defence, McClean’s shot cannoning off Szczesny’s legs to safety whilst Colback forced the Pole into a smart save at the second attempt. But that was as good as it got for them; Szczesny barely touched the ball once we had passed the halfway mark of the first period such was Arsenal’s dominance of the ball.
Despite this, Arsenal did not achieve many shots on target. Cazorla tested Mignolet between the two Sunderland chances before missing the target with a later chance from a similar distance. Alongside him, the returning Abou Diaby provided support in attack, coming close with a stumbling effort that narrowly missed the post. The midfield had a ‘getting to know you’ feel about it. The trio of Arteta, Diaby and Cazorla playing together for the first time and the Frenchman in particular, was seemingly unsure of his role at times. That is hardly surprising given the length of time away from the pitch he has endured. Overall, he should be pleased with his return and it is a decent foundation upon which to build.
Lukas Podolski joined the party, leading the Arsenal attack at the start. The German might have scored from Jenkinson’s cross but like Theo Walcott, he could not convert the chance. The manager noted afterwards that Podolski’s fitness is still short of where it needs to be; you sense that is the case for a number of the players. As with Cazorla, Podolski made a promising debut. His movement was good and adapting to the movement of the team will take a couple of games. Next week’s visit to Stoke will be an interesting – and judging by their performance at Reading yesterday – bruising experience for him.
As he tired, Olivier Giroud entered the fray and was presented with the best opportunity of the game. As Cazorla mesmirised the Sunderland defence once more, the Frenchman slashed his effort wide. Cazorla’s dismay was evident as was the manager’s. Wenger noted that “he had more time than he thought and we expected him to score that one, of course“, as a thousand scribes penned the line that it was the type of chance that van Persie gobbled up, neglecting to add that it was also the sort of chance he was equally capable of missing. No revisionism, simply highlighting that even though it sometimes felt like it, van Persie did not score with every shot.
Arsène noted afterwards that the performance lacked zip, zing or whatever zest might normally be expected. That was not a surprise as such with the week seeing two first team regulars leave. The fee for Alex Song is good business but it remains to be seen whether refusing to pay him more than £55k per week, as is alleged in this morning’s Sunday Mirror, is. The salary structure is being shifted and if Matt Law’s theory is correct, the decision to cap Song’s pay gives credence to stories of discontent with the player’s attitude.
Arsène said that the returning players such as Wilshere, offer him comfort that the defensive element of the midfield can be dealt with by the squad. Sahin’s arrival might hint that the creative aspect is expected to be sorely tested. Whatever the case, there are two weeks to go in this transfer window. We know not to panic unless there are two minutes to go and Arsenal haven’t signed anyone.