Saturday, August 18, 2012

Arsenal 0 - Sunderland 0

A new-look Arsenal squad took the field against Sunderland in the first match of the new EPL season. No Robin van Persie; Alex Song on the bench, pending his likely move to Barcelona. Carl Jenkinson starting at left back is a reminder that Wenger only has two weeks left to sign another fullback. Somewhat surprisingly, new boy Giroud also started on the bench, leaving the other new boy Lucas Podolski up front with Gervinho (from whom much more is expected this season) and Walcott (who usually flatters to deceive).

In the first half, Arsenal had the look of a team that hasn't had time to gel yet. A lot of passes missed their mark, as players didn't quite read the movement of their teammates. Diaby, in particular, left a few passes short, inviting tackles on his teammates.

Nevertheless, the Gunners' offense threatened the Sunderland goal on several occasions, with Santi Cazorla looking particularly dangerous. Diaby also showed up in the offensive third, as is his want. The only problem is that as Song's replacement as holding midfielder, he needs to make sure that he's back where he's needed to support the four defenders. Indeed, the defense looked shaky on a couple of occasions during the first half. They were pretty easily cut open by Sunderland counterattacks, and Szczesny had to to make a couple of good saves to prevent the Gunners from going down a goal.

In the 42d movement, Arsenal finally showed the sweet passing flow that Gunners' fans have come to expect. Arteta and Cazorla played a nice one-two to beat the defense. Carzorla's subsequent pass to Walcott split open the defense, and Walcott's cut back pass nearly found Podolsky at the near post for the game's first goal. Only a sliding block by a Sunderland defender prevented the ball from reaching Podolski's right foot.

While the first half ended without a goal, Arsenal fans had reason to believe that their side was growing more cohesive and gaining self-belief as the game progressed. They had more and more of the possession, and Sunderland hardly threatened after their two early counterattacks. It seemed like Arsenal just needed that first goal to jump start their season.

In the second half, Arsenal's dominance of possession continued, but to little effect. Sunderland were playing with 10 men behind the ball, and their defense was quite solid. They must have blocked a dozen Arsenal shots and passes into the box. They never really even tried to threaten the Arsenal goal. It was an excellent strategy, especially against a team that are just learning how to play together. The Gunners' lack of familiarity with one another's movement really showed, as they were unable to create many clear-cut chances in the second half. One exception came after Olivier Giroud replaced Podolski in front. Cazorla, who was Arsenal's best player throughout the game, found him in the box with a beautiful pass. Giroud really should have scored, but contrived to scuff his shot wide of the goal. We can only hope that miss doesn't play on his mind and cause a drop in confidence.

Arsenal fans will justifiably feel that, had RvP not been sold to Man U this week, he would have pulled the team's bacon out of the fire at the end, as he did so many times last season. But that's water under the bridge. Arsenal are going to have to rely on others, mainly Podolski and Giroud, to get the job done. They didn't do it today, but it's way too early to draw any conclusions. Both showed good movement, and strong desire when they were in the game. And as the weeks go by, and the team become more familiar with one another, the pace, spacing, and sharpness of passing should improve. Then, they'll have a better chance of breaking down teams that are hell bent on defending their own goal.

On the day, Sunderland (and boss Martin O'Neill) deserved the point for successfully executing their defensive game-plan.

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