Whoa. If Friday night’s match between Leicester City and Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium is a marker for how this upcoming season will play out, then we should all be very excited. For many fans, any concerns about fitness to open the season should have been partially allayed by a ferocious, end to end battle that saw 7 goals scored, including two in the first 5 minutes. The league’s broadcasting partners must also have been exceedingly pleased with the action.
For Arsenal, this was a chance to buck the recent trend of dropping points to open the season, as they have done with losses in each of the 2 previous seasons. Arsene Wenger was eager to show the fans that, yes, he has heard their grievances and the club have been working behind the scenes to make sure that the team don’t fall into the same traps that have plagued his charges for years. For Wenger, Assistant Steve Bould and the rest of the coaching staff, the summer was a perfect opportunity to continue to flesh out their current tactical vision of Arsenal: as dynamic and aggressive a 3-4-3 derivative as can be seen outside of a Marcelo Bielsa training pitch.
For the players themselves, the beginning of the season is an opportunity to see the hard work of the last two months of training pay dividends. Whether a player has used the summer to fill out his frame with muscle to better endure the rigours of the Premier League, or whether they used the summer to finally recuperate fully from lasting injuries or mental fatigue, the opening of the league campaign is the truest litmus test yet for these players, anxious to know where they stand within the squad.
Football that counts is back! Hope your heart is in mid-season form! Let’s take a look at some of the Talking Points from Friday’s clash.
Time to Adjust? Us? Pshhhhh…
The jump to the Premier League from any other professional league is as immense and jarring as any in the world, or so they say. It doesn’t matter how much they light the world on fire at their former club, some will claim, the physical demands of the league will overwhelm all but the most robust of players. Even the sheer intensity and pace of play can affect those who are able to cope with the elevated physicality. However, (bearing in mind 1 game does not define a player’s career with a club) the early returns on Arsenal’s two summer additions thus far are extremely promising.
For Sead Kolasinac, the football world’s answer the the question “what would happen if Nemanja Vidic ate Ashley Cole?”, the physicality was never likely to be a problem. One does not get called the ‘Bosnian Hulk’ by being a shrinking violet, but the blend of pace, confidence and pure destructive force has been alarming for Gooners who had only previously seen him in YouTube videos and the preseason. If Kolasinac were to slink out onto the pitch when the NFL comes to town this autumn in a helmet and jersey, it would be a long while before anyone noticed. Just ask Leicester City winger and part time tackle dummy Riyad Mahrez.
One of the most surprising parts of Kolasinac’s game thus far has been his attacking contribution. Not unlike David Alaba when Pep Guardiola was in charge in Bavaria, Kolasinac is no single-track, sideline hugger. Even though he was technically playing as a centre half (1 of 3 to open the match), he often popped up on the left edge of the box, even combining with Mesut Ozil on forays into the box. He also seems to have a serious knack for the big play, already being responsible for Arsenal’s lone goal from open play in the Community Shield, as well as his (totally onsides..) assist to Danny Welbeck in the dying moments of the first half on a Friday. The Bosnian’s rise to a fan favorite looks all but assured.
For Alexandre Lacazette, his Premier League season could not have gotten off to a better start. Often the most pressure packed goal for a newly minted record signing, he wasted no time in opening his account, scoring in just the second minute. At 5’9 and coming from Ligue 1, there were questions over how well he would be able to assimilate to the league, but he showed a persistence on the pitch that will endear him quickly to the fans.
Lacazette displayed excellent versatility in attack, looking to make splitting runs in behind, play 1-2s and combinations, or back into a defender the receive the ball at his feet in equal amounts. As Wenger has highlighted, Lacazette is an extremely hard working player who has improved every day for the club. Fans have to be delighted at the initial returns from their two quality signings so far.
Same Old Arsenal
Much less delightful for the Gunner faithful was the defensive display at the Emirates. The final 10 minutes of the match will do much to paper over the cracks that were rapidly exposed by Leicester’s hard working front 2 of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki; cracks that have shone through the foundation of this Arsenal squad for years. Every single one of Leicester’s goals could have (and likely would have) been prevented by a team in mid-season form. Normally sure footed players like Xhaka and Ozil do not typically turn the ball over as much as they did, and Steve Bould is not likely to allow his defence to leave the back post as open as they did in Okazaki’s goal.
Rob Holding, a player who impressed many last season with his composure, and this summer also added significant mass to his frame, had himself a clunker of a game. Appearing less confident and several steps slower than he did a season ago, Holding quickly raised heart rates around the Emirates with his haphazard marking of Jamie Vardy and carlessness on the ball. For a player who showed so much promise last season, this is likely more of a blip on the radar than a trend, but one only has to look at the shattered confidence of Carl Jenkinson and the months of questionable form last season, from which Shkodran Mustafi has only just recovered, to see the dangers of letting a bad game spiral out of control for a young player. Here’s hoping Arsene doesn’t bury him in the squad just yet.
On the subject of ‘same old Arsenal’, why does this team still employ zonal marking on set pieces? Yes, stats show that a zonal marking approach has a higher success rate than man marking, but it does not seem to do them any favors. The theory behind zonal marking is that it allows defenders to establish either position and not get picked off of their man by the sea of moving bodies as the ball is delivered, but Arsenal seem to be particularly poor at doing this. Too often an Arsenal defender will lose dominance over their established position, being overwhelmed by physical attackers swarming into the area. There is a timidity to the way the team defends, as if worried about physical contact or getting whistled for a game changing penalty.
Of course, these fears may be understandable, as all throughout last season and in this year’s Community Shield, players like Hector Bellerin, Shkodran Mustafi and Per Mertesacker have been hurt trying to defend a moving attacker while standing in place. Hector Bellerin’s brutal concussion at the hands of Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso is the perfect illustration of the dangers of this tactic. Perhaps it is time, if not to totally change their set piece defensive approach, at least to incorporate some man marking concepts into their approach. It could save the team both goals and injuries in the future.
The (New) Same Old Arsenal?
For the Gunners, defensive woes were not the only trend that we have seen emerge since the run up to the end of last season. Last season, largely due to the successes of super sub Olivier Giroud, Arsenal were often able to rescue points in the dying minutes of a match. Friday night was no different, with Arsenal first knotting the score for the second time of the match, followed by a winning goal from- yup, Olivier Giroud- to steal 3 points, all in the last 10 minutes of regular time.
This determination and will to win flies very much in the face of the popular notion of Arsenal as a soft club that folds under pressure. While this may have been true during the Gunners’ dismal displays throughout the winter, by the end of the season, their fighting spirit was evident. Perhaps no match illustrated this fact as much as last season’s FA Cup Final. Looking all the world like Arsenal would carry the balance of play but the more opportunistic Chelsea would win the match, Arsenal turned up the heat and sent a barrage of attacks toward the Chelsea goal, what happened after that was, as they used to say back when the FA Cup was a big deal to fans, history.
That this fighting spirit carried over into this season in both the Community Shield and the first match of the Premier League season is a very promising sign. Adding the overwhelming physical presence of Sead Kolasinac and the consistent goal threat of Alexandre Lacazette should only help the club to fight through their typical in-season patchy form. It is clear, from the players signed in the last two seasons to the refusal to lift a preseason trophy overhead in celebration, this team is aiming for big things in what might be Arsene Wenger’s final contract with the club as manager.
Finally, earning quick honorable mentions here are Aaron Ramsey (who has totally cornered the market along with Olivier Giroud on scoring huge goals for this team) for his perpetual motion and dynamism which totally changed the game, and Arsene Wenger, who could not have made more perfect substitutions than he did. If the team tighten up in defence, cut out the sloppy turnovers in their own half and continue to attack as devastatingly as any team in England, “Same Old Arsenal” has a chance at changing into “Premier League Champions Arsenal” before Arsene Wenger’s final good bye. How poetic would that be?