Breathe Gooners, breathe. We’re here now; the Premier League season is now dead in our sights. After a week of build up which saw many still frustrated fans drawing parallels with last season’s lacklustre start, Arsene Wenger and his men insured that, for a week at least, tensions would be eased amongst the Emirates faithful. Winning the Community Shield against the defending champions I suppose will do that. And they did it without 5 international calibre starters…
Sure, like last season, Monsieur Wenger’s transfer business only seems half complete, and a combination of participation in summer tournaments and the requisite knocks and niggles that hobble many a footballer in preseason have depleted the ranks right from the off. However, despite these familiar refrains for those within the redder half of London, there is something of a different feeling around this club. It showed in China, where Arsenal were able to snare their first preseason trophy of the new year, and it showed in the Emirates Cup, where they were able to back their way into a second trophy. In both cases, first Petr Cech and then Per Mertesacker refused to hoist the winner’s cup aloft, and the message was clear: these are not the trophies that we will be playing for this season. We want to win when it counts. This resolve and focus, which admittedly was hard to detect from some of the team’s less intense friendlies this summer, carried over into Sunday’s Community Shield against defending Premier League Champions, Chelsea.
In many ways, the first half of this match mirrored the first half of the FA Cup Final between the two sides just 2 months ago. Both teams, who on paper field nearly identical formations, spent much of the opening period feeling each other out while looking to establish their attacking game plan. Chelsea, the more structured of the two sides defensively, look to establish possession in their own half before sending their forwards downfield with expertly weighted long passes, typically off the laces of either Marcos Alonso or the ever adventurous and entertaining David Luiz. Meanwhile, Arsenal usually looks to establish their rhythm on the ball, working combinations down the flanks and inside to their more central attackers.
After a scoreless first half, which saw Per Mertesacker leave with a head injury (more on that in a moment) to be replaced by Sead Kolasinac, it was Chelsea who broke the deadlock after Victor Moses caught Rob Holding napping (Come on Robbie, Cannavaro would never do that!) and got behind the Arsenal defence to smash one home. But it would be new boy Kolasinac, not fellow summer signing (and the one of the pair actually expected to do the goal scoring) Alexandre Lacazette who would equalize on a brilliant header off of the set piece resulting from a rash challenge to the Achilles of Mohammed Elneny by Pedro, earning himself a red card mere seconds before he was due to be subbed off.
A rather uneventful 10 minutes took the game past full time and into the newly formatted (A-B-B-A) Penalties, making their debut for the first time here. It would be an immediate test of the rule change, so instituted because of how often the team that shoots first in PKs wins (over 60%). As if right on cue, Chelsea, after converting on their first PK and watching Arsenal convert their first 2, sent goalkeeper Thibault Courtois and newcomer Alvaro Morata up next, only to see the former miss and the latter get stuffed by Petr Cech. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Olivier Giroud both slotting their tries home, as cool as you’d like, Arsenal completed the comeback and beat Chelsea for the second time in as many tries with silverware on the line.
Now let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways from the match:
Turning the Power Back On
As fellow Insider Raj Kumarasuriyar explained in his excellent piece on Sunday, it does indeed appear as though Arsene Wenger is making a concerted effort to put the ‘power’ back into this Arsenal team, much like they had at their disposal at the height of the Invincibles era, when players like Patrick Vieira could rip your head off just as easily as they could run past you. With last season’s signing of Granit Xhaka and this year’s capture of Sead Kolasinac, Wenger has obviously decided to look beyond supreme technical qualities and lightning quickness in the search for more grit and toughness in his side. These two, whom I have styled the “Balkan Bash Brothers” have brought an edge to this Gunners side that has not been seen in years
In addition to transfer market additions, players all throughout the squad are noticeably bulking up, particularly through the torso. Hector Bellerin, Alex Iwobi, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Rob Holding, Theo Walcott, and Xhaka all appear to have focused on adding strength to their frames, and it is even more apparent when watching the team walk out of the Wembley tunnel with Chelsea just 2 months after doing the same in the FA Cup Final. Xhaka in particular seems to have benefitted from his summer hiatus, coming back looking every inch a legitimate Premier League midfield enforcer.
It is hard to say what, if any, input new Director of High Performance, Darren Burgess has had on this widely proliferating trend in the Arsenal dressing room, but it is clear that this is another area that the club have been reassessing this summer, no matter how trivial or small it may seem. In the last two seasons, both Leicester City and Chelsea have won the title with big, physical sides and tireless midfields (the link between: N’Golo Kante), and perhaps Arsenal are looking to ape some of that for themselves.
The Community Shield may not be an official game, but try telling that to the players. In particular, it seems that between last season’s encounters and the two preseason friendlies in which the London rivals have met this summer, no head is safe. Chelsea players, in particular, have developed a nasty habit of leading with their elbows when elevating to challenge for a ball. From Marcos Alonso’s TKO on Hector Bellerin last season, through David Ospina’s mistimed punch which connected with Pedro’s face, to Sunday’s clash, which featured Gary Cahill opening up Arsenal Captain Per Mertesacker’s face with his elbow, it is obvious that ‘safety’ comfortably trails ‘winning’ on the player priority list for at least one, and possibly both of these teams.
In football, it is to be expected that some teams just play with a harder edge than others, especially when faced with a deficit of talent to their opponents. Chelsea, however, does not have that problem. They are nearly as skilled as any team in world football, and clearly tough enough to win a Premier League title. In fact, over the course of a season, Chelsea players have shown an aptitude for aggressive and, at times, questionable tackles, as with Pedro’s studs up, from behind challenge to Mohammed Elneny’s heel.
So why do they keep diving?
Whether it is going down of an apparent gunshot wound after being breathed on inside the box, or whether it is crumpling in a heap as soon as a player in red touches them on the back, Chelsea have obviously attempted to carry over lessons that they learned in the past, and in particular the 2015/16 season: if playing Arsenal, and you have the ball in the box but are unlikely to score, hit the deck. Hard. Throw a hand up in the air for good measure. If you are Diego Costa, this tends to work more than not. However, if your name is Victor Moses, it clearly does not. I am not here to speculate on whether these are simply ingrained bad habits in these players, or if that is how they are coached by Antonio Conte, but if Chelsea players keep falling and flailing in such unconvincing fashion, there could be some hefty consequences dolled out under the new, retroactive punishment rules for simulation. Good riddance, I say.
One of the most exciting parts of the Community Shield is that it allows fans possibly the best look at their team’s new signings against top competition, but before the games truly count. In this match, both sides featured some of their shiny new toys. On the face of it, Arsene Wenger seems to have hit the mark with his two blockbuster signings.
Alexandre Lacazette was the only new Arsenal player to take the field to start the game, and it did not take him long to make an impression on the fans. Seeing the sudden burst that he displays, dipping a shoulder under his less athletic marker to dart into the box. Lacazette’s burst into the box and ability to make himself available in a shooting position is remarkable, despite inconsistent service in this match without the two best playmakers in the side. He is already drawing comparisons to Ian Wright.
If it hadn’t been for Per Mertesacker’s gruesome injury, we may not have seen match (and opponent) leveller Sead Kolasinac until it was too late for him to make an impact on the match. Luckily, the BFG appears to be suffering little from his involuntary donation of blood to the Wembley turf, and Arsenal fans got to see their new wingback/ rugby star in disguise.
For Chelsea’s £60 million man Alvaro Morata, the start to life in England has been a bit rougher. Not yet comprehensive of the way the Blues like to play, he was relegated to the bench for the first hour, despite an anemic attack lacking Eden Hazard and the bullishly competent Diego Costa alone up top. He may have escaped the wrath of the fans, many of whom could point to several subpar performances in the team if it hadn’t been for his saved penalty. When Chelsea are able to replace Cesc Fabregas with new signing from Monaco, Tiemoue Bakayoko, a far better partner to N’Golo Kante in the centre of the park.
Oh The Possibilities…
It bears repeating that Arsenal were able to win that match without 5 of their very best players, all of whom are shoo ins to the starting XI when healthy. With two of the most creative players in the world, Alexis and Mesut Ozil, back in the XI, I fully expect Alexandre Lacazette to get even more opportunities on goal. His superior movement skills will be unstoppable with Ozil working the half spaces in from the right while flanking Lacazette to the left would be a much more threatening Alexis Sanchez, no disrespect to Danny Welbeck.
The lack of a solid end product from up front hurt the Gunners in open play, but missing Aaron Ramsey from the central midfield might have hurt them even more in this match. While Elneny was his usual solid, if unspectacular self, he does not have the vertical dynamism that Aaron Ramsey can bring to the side. When Ramsey returns, even more space will be opened up for Lacazette and Alexis to exploit. And we haven’t even mentioned the Gunners’ starting centre halves from last year, Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, both of whom are expected to start when healthy.
Perhaps the most important takeaway from this match is hope. The Gunner faithful are heading into this season as optimistic as some have seen in quite some time. Fans still are crying out for more firepower on the transfer market (bonjour, Thomas Lemar?), but still there is an increasing recognition amongst even some of the sceptics that this Arsenal team is good, and this Arsenal team is deep. Later this year, Santi Cazorla should hopefully be making his return to action, following Jack Wiltshire back into the squad after their lengthy injury lay-offs following the last campaign. As Arsenal’s two most creative central midfielders, they could add a new dimension to this team when they return, despite few fans being willing to count on their contribution.
It may be too early to tell if Arsenal are going to be title contenders, but in this final, and arguably most important friendly, against the defending champions of the Premier League, they sure looked the part. That they were missing almost half of the starting XI? Well, that’s just icing on the cake.