And now for those of you watching in black and white, this one is in technicolour.
An interminably long close season – even though Euro2012 rendered it shorter than it would have otherwise been – melded into the pre-season with the main attraction creeping up on us stealthily, quietly until BANG! It’s here and refreshingly, a 3pm kick-off on a Saturday. There are certain days in the season when the usual excitement and anticipation levels are exceeded, spiralling into the atmosphere; FA Cup 3rd Round, opening day of the season. No amount of vulgarity in football can change that, not for me at least.
A tumultuous week ends with the tantalising prospect of a much-changed Arsenal side taking the field. The Spanish media are reporting that a deal has been struck with Barcelona and Alex Song will be unveiled in the Camp Nou before their friendly against Sampdoria, the fee around €20m in the end. The first hint of that eventuality came in Arsène’s press conference; not in the denial of a bid but the reporting of a strategic ‘little knock’ being sustained by the player who appeared to wish that Speedo were the Arsenal kit designer this pre-season.
International week claimed its genuine casualties, even if the knocks and niggles were picked up in the final pre-season friendly in Cologne. Laurent Koscielny will be missing from the fray this afternoon, as will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The England international is being lined up for a more central role in this campaign according to the manager, thoughts which no doubt influenced the thinking in dispensing with Song’s services. It isn’t all doom and gloom despite the child-like insistence of some that it is. Theo Walcott is bucking the trend by negotiating with the club, a key player to retain not simply down to form. Walcott is a youngster by comparison to others leaving; it is important that Arsenal are able to keep these players. No point in signing young players if they are going to leave early in their careers.
Departures have notionally sorted out squad numbers, they are not finalised until the squad list is submitted to the Premier League on 1st September. As it is, the vacant No.10 shirt has been handed to Jack Wilshere with Park vacated the No.9 to accommodate Podolski, the Retail department now having used up the surplus stock of the letters, t, b and c. For the Korean, it is somewhat of a hint about where his expectations should be resting.
And the new captain is Thomas Vermaelen. It is hardly surprising given he was vice-captain last season, Mikel Arteta filling that role this time around. The decision was hardly surprising although I know some would argue that the Belgian is not guaranteed a starting place in partnering Laurent Koscielny. I think that pairing is the manager’s preferred choice but let’s be honest, having Mertesacker as a back-up is a healthy position to be in. The German will be starting this afternoon with the current injury situation. The defence is pretty much picking itself today, with Gibbs I think getting the nod over Santos in the starting line-up.
Theo Walcott’s fitness is the pivotal decision today. If Walcott fails to recover, the myriad permutations open to the manager become plain to see; Cazorla on the right, maybe Gervinho, Arshavin? Who plays on the left and which combination of strikeforce? Podolski and Giroud or just the German centrally? I think it will be the same as Cologne with the new pair in action, especially with Giroud’s aerial ability.
In the midfield, Mikel Arteta will be pulling the strings offering the chance for Abou Diaby to confront his demons alongside Aaron Ramsey today. The sale of Song offers more opportunities for Diaby, the box-to-box style will be needed. Box-to-box? That will be midfield play not specifically attacking or defence but commonsense and hardwork dictating when to attack, when to provide a barrier to the back four. Whilst it is ideal to have a more defensively-minded player in the quartet, even that does not excuse the others from becoming ‘water carriers’. Additions to the squad in the next fortnight may change the initial thoughts about the formation but for the moment, it is what it is.
This afternoon’s opponents offer an interesting proposition. Sunderland have been obdurate opponents in recent years, normally beaten but not overwhelmed since the middle of the last decade. A convincing win is the marker to set down. It will be easily dismissed in the wider context of the season but to stop broken cannons and a negative air pervading, a comfortable victory is essential.
I think the line-up today will be, bracketed positions if Theo passes his fitness test:
Szczesny; Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Ramsey, Arteta, Cazorla; Gervinho (Walcott), Giroud, Podolski
The manager has an attacking array of talent upon which he can call from the bench and if required, Marouane Chamakh as well. I wonder if the Moroccan felt a surge of energy this week following van Persie’s sale. He understood the Dutchman was first choice striker but now, he is fighting with Giroud who is arguably a similar style of player. If service comes from the flanks, there is a sense that both would thrive, particularly with Cazorla’s ability to deliver from set-pieces.
Interesting times ahead and I must say, a season to which I am looking forward with more anticipation than for some time. Despite the sales, there is still a sense that this has been a good summer in the transfer market and that is not something we have easily felt in recent seasons.
Finally, for those who want to take it to the wire, there is still time to join the ACLF Fantasy Football League. Click here, the code to use is 639202-162719.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.