When you reach a certain point in your life, the opening day of the season becomes a blur. No, I haven’t forgotten that 1988 day when we thrashed Wimbledon 5 – 1.
On and off the pitch, it was a day of extremes. Meeting the late great Bobby Moore followed by the immediate low of Terry Gibson. And he was low; extremely short. Wandering unchallenged through the dressing room area at Plough Lane; football in a different era.
Today is a new era. Welcome to Arsenal, Unai Emery. The first opening day of the season in 21 years. A 1 – 1 draw at Leeds was Arsène’s maiden August adventure for the club, the precursor to better things. We won’t reach those heights this season, or at least I don’t think we will, but it will be different.
It will, Unai, won’t it?
Tell me you won’t tolerate the pathetic capitulations we endured against Manchester City last season?
The start is as tough as could be inflicted on any manager at a new club, let alone one new to the English game. Meticulous preparation won Emery the job at Arsenal and is the hallmark of his career. He’ll be ready for the onslaught; will the players?
City won’t know what to expect. None of the friendlies gave much away. They kept us guessing, but did watching scouts pick out more? Probably. No more pass to retain possession so the opposition can’t score; now it’s dynamic, counter-attacking football, utilising pace and guile. I hope.
Direct, they call it. You can tell the person’s age when they say that. Anyone old enough to watch football in the 80s and 90s when Charles Hughes held sway shudders when they describe football that way. But tika-taka lite is dead, ready for the binmen to collect it.
Heel, Achilles, Heel
It’s widely accepted Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the stand-in left-back and what he loses in experience, he recovers in pace. Which he’ll need against City’s attack in what will be a busy afternoon.
Our Achilles heel is the centre of the defence. We lack a commanding centre-back but acquired a defensive barrier in Lucas Torreira. How much difference that makes is one of the key aspects of the afternoon?
The Uruguayan impressed in the destructive role during the World Cup and eases the pressure on Xhaka. Yes, the Swiss has to defend but he’s not the sole barrier between the attacking hordes and a creaking defence, allowing his natural game to come to the fore.
And free up Ramsey. I would expect Aubameyang to play as a sole striker today with Mkhitaryan on the left, offering some protection for AMN with Ramsey on the other flank providing the same for Bellerin. Both full-backs were left exposed during pre-season with the Spaniard copping flak for the midfield’s failings. It can’t happen this afternoon; the team needs to press as one unit for it to be effective.
Cech seems likely to lead the side, if divination by press conference works. The notion of five captains in the side certainly fuelled that speculation. Emery’s preferred passing out from the back and use of a ‘sweeper keeper’ behind a high defensive line, puts pressure on Cech. His distribution is hit or miss; too much of the latter previously, but with a new goalkeeping coach, it’s an area where you expect improvement.
To some, his inclusion raises questions over Leno. Why spend £26m on a player and then not use him? Perhaps with a new central defensive pairing, Emery wants some stability behind them for this match. And next weekend.
Eleven Plus Eleven
Up front, the combination of Aubameyang with Mkhitaryan raises hopes of a rekindled understanding from days gone by. Does Özil feel he has a point to prove to the critics over the summer? The motivation for a season comes in all shapes and forms.
It leaves the line-up:
Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Sokratis, Maitland-Niles; Torreira, Xhaka; Ramsey, Özil, Mkhitaryan; Aubameyang
And while our weaknesses are exposed and analysed, City’s are glossed over. Defending champions and a goalscoring machine, the centre of their defence is vulnerable; you’ve just got to get the ball in the first place to do the damage.
We’re going to spend a lot of the afternoon chasing shadows but that doesn’t mean we can’t get a good result today. We’re not favourites by any means but it doesn’t stop us winning. If we go in with an attitude which reeks of defeat, we will lose.
And given this is the first game of the season, surely we should wait at least 90 minutes before weary cynicism kicks in?
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.