The season begins against our closest rivals from the last campaign
For all our talk about titles and top-four finishes, Everton were our nearest rivals last season. They finished closer to us in fifth than we finished to Chelsea in third. So it’s somewhat apropos that we should begin the season looking to prove our top four credentials against the team that came closest to dethroning us just a few short months ago.
Everton may not be the most dynamic team, but they are well organized and have strength in areas where we are weak. The real challenge today will be defending set pieces. The Toffees boast a potent arial attack in the form of Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini and even Jo, who may return to the squad following an ankle injury. Considering that none of our starters could touch the top of Fellaini’s head without getting on a step-ladder first, it will be crucial that we don’t give away silly free kicks and unnecessary corners. Expect to see a lot of route one football from Everton today, especially considering how much we struggled with that approach towards the end of last season.
Defensively Everton are among the best in the Premier League and boast a good ‘keeper in Tim Howard. They will be without Phil Jagielka through injury but they will be lifted by the availability of Jolene Lescott who has yet to complete an increasingly unlikely move to Manchester City. (This may well have an impact on Senderos’ future at the Emirates.) Today’s match will really be a battle between our desire to play attractive, possession football and Everton’s ability to disrupt our passing game while forcing us to cope with the long ball. But if they so desire, Everton can play some possession football. Players like Louis Saha, Steven Pienaar and Mikael Arteta certainly have the creativity and pace to cause problems.
Ultimately I think our success depends on our ability to maintain possession and limit the number of crosses and free kicks that Everton can pump into the penalty area. We have one of the shortest teams in the league and Everton will certainly look to expose that fact. (Something we better get used to this season.) I’d like to think that it’ll be a swashbuckling affair, but the odds are greater that we’ll have to grind out a result. Everton won’t park the bus in front of their penalty box, but it’s unlikely that they’ll play a high-tempo match either.
While we’ll all be looking for victory today, I certainly think that a point is an adequate result. I know that I’ve been saying all summer that a draw is almost as good as a loss in the league, but not when it’s your first game of the season. Draws can kill a title challenge, but losing your opening game can kill your morale. That’s something we can’t afford with such a big champions league tie waiting for us on Tuesday night. So while I’d usually say we need to go all out for three points, starting the season with something positive is paramount.
The team almost picks itself today due to injury, but that’s nothing new. Wenger has already said that Wilshere is not in the squad today but will have his chances this season. So the starting XI will probably look something like this:
Arshavin – Van Persie – Bendtner
Song – Cesc – Diaby
Clichy – Vermaelen – Gallas – Sagna
Frankly, it’s not our best eleven, but it’s what we have available. If Diaby doesn’t pass fit in the morning, then it’s back to Denilson, or possibly Eboue in midfield. Of course, this is all based on the assumption that we’ll start the season in the new look 4-3-3. Arsene Wenger can be unpredictable, but I’d be shocked if our entire pre-season preparation was tossed aside in favor of the 4-4-2 today.
It’s a tough opening match and August doesn’t get much easier from here, but we can certainly survive this opening gauntlet. While it’s not something we want to consider, 4 points from a possible 9 would be an acceptable start considering our much easier schedule through September and October. The bigger question is about the attitude and belief of the players. They should start the campaign with an “us versus the world” attitude. No one believes we can compete for the title and few rate our chances to finish in the top four. If that doesn’t motivate and galvanize the squad, nothing will. But having a chip on your shoulder is no substitute for the confidence that comes from winning, so a result today is crucial.
Arsene Wenger has said some strange things over the years, but he was seemingly in rare form yesterday. In response to rumors that Cesc might go to Barcelona, Wenger joked that we had made a bid for Lionel Messi. His point was simply that an Arsenal bid for Messi is about as believeable as Cesc going to Barcelona. Well played Arsene. But then he went a little too far. For some reason he felt to need to say that there are only ten players that are too expensive for Arsenal to buy. What on Earth is the point of that comment. It merely gives ammunition to those who would say that his transfer policies are meant to advance his own personal agenda and are not in the best interest of the club. If we can afford all but ten players in the world, surely there are few that would strengthen our chances of competing for trophies. Again, I’m not sure what prompted Wenger to say this, but it certainly shouldn’t be construed as a hint that he plans to splash some serious cash. It’s just more wacky Arsene psychology I suppose.
But it’s hard not to feel affection for the boss. It’s especially hard not to feel affection for him once you read the unusually candid interview he gave two English journalists during the week. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a must. You get a wonderful insight into what a fascinating man he is and you will come away with a profound appreciate for his desire to win and love for the game. Again, if you missed this interview, published in two parts, make sure you read it here.
So that’s all there is to say for now. The season is upon us and the time for prognosticating and hypothesizing is over. Now the players must prove that they deserved the manager’s faith. We might still add a player or two, but it’s time to go to battle with the troops on hand. Last season the supporters spent more time groaning than cheering. Perhaps we must look in the mirror and ask how we can better support the team this season. If it helps, just remember that no one believes we have the quality to compete. The doubters are the enemy. The other clubs are the enemy. Arsenal are our team.
Today’s match will be difficult but we have had success against David Moyes’ sides in the recent past. A win at Goodison Park would certainly quiet some critics but a draw would be a creditable result. Either way, I couldn’t be more excited for the return of Arsenal football. It’s really all that matters after all.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!