After what seems like the smallest break of all time, the 2015/16 season is now upon us.
I mean, seriously, I saw Darren Berry yesterday and realised that the last time I’d seen him, he was half cut and on his way to Wembley to watch Arsenal dominate the FA Cup Final. It really doesn’t seem that long ago. Well not to me, anyway. None of which is to say that I’m not glad the football season is back. I am glad it’s back and, with Petr Čech now, unbelievably, added to the ranks, I think we might even dare to dream big, shiny, Premier League trophy type dreams.
Before you start on me and accuse me of premature jubilation after Sunday’s win against Roman Abramovich’s evil empire, let me say that this is not me reacting to that game. I can’t do that, mainly because I didn’t see it. It was also, as everyone has helpfully pointed out, a friendly game. We all know that an Arsenal game against Chelsea can never be friendly – particularly when our opponents field someone like Ramires – but it would be unwise to read too much into what was essentially a bit of shadowplay before the real business begins next week. Arsenal, of course, have last season’s cautionary tale to keep them honest. Having battered Manchester City in the traditional curtain raiser and squeezed past Crystal Palace in our first league game, we then contrived to win only one of our next seven league fixtures, effectively ending our title challenge by October.
Such a start this season would be unthinkable.
That said, I do think there are clear reasons for optimism. Here’s one that is based on Sunday’s game; we turned the Chelsea manager into a hypocrite. For me, he’s now got to a point where I don’t think even he believes the things he says.
Maybe he never has, but to talk about Arsenal defending “with ten players behind the ball all the time”, as if that isn’t a time honoured tactic of his, was extraordinary. Maybe he realises that, for Arsenal, the penny may just have dropped and, if that is the case, that makes us very dangerous animals indeed.
As Lewis Ambrose points out here, this is not the first time that Arsenal have approached a game like this. It’s not even the first time they’ve made a success of it, as last winter’s win at Manchester City with something like 35% possession proves, but it is the first time that we have approached a game against the bus conductor’s Chelsea like this and made a success of it. The key here, or one of them, was probably scoring the first goal.
How many times have we watched Arsenal play all the football, only to be repelled by the thickest of blue lines and then concede the second we are put under the slightest pressure? In that moment, you, I , everyone watching knows instinctively that the game is up. Arsène himself has often noted the importance of scoring the first goal in these games and I can think of just two occasions in ten league games against the Portuguese’s men when we have managed it – Thierry Henry in 2004/05 and Mathieu Flamini at Stamford Bridge when we were denied victory only by a ridiculous Michael Essien goal.
[Editor’s note: There have been more. League Cup Final 2007 and first clash at the Emirates the same year came to mind.]
Obviously, we won’t always be able to score the first goal. However, with a tacit admission from the manager, both in his continued selection of Coquelin and purchase of Čech to bookend the centre backs, that defending really is important if you want to win the big games, I am hopeful that we might not concede the first one so often. So, where we usually lose at Chelsea 2-0, having been caught on the counter, or from a set-piece, we might come out 0-0 instead.
There’s nothing wrong with that approach, just ask the “tramp in a tracksuit”, he’s won title after title off it. If he’s complaining about our approach, we must be doing something right.
Of course, his annoyance at our approach must be aggravated by the purchase of Petr Čech. I’ve seen a few Arsenal fans grumbling about his purchase along the lines of “If he’s not good enough for Chelsea…” as if Thibault Courtois has not just had a remarkably impressive first season in the Premier League. Or, come to that, Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina are close to being in either goalkeeper’s league. That’s the key point for me. You know I’m a big Szczesny fan, but his fall from grace last season was something that others have delighted in. Nobody would argue, now, that Čech isn’t an instant upgrade on the Colombian and I suspect even his doubters may have been won over by his pre-season performances.
For the first time in a long time, since Arsenal’s 2003 capture of Jens Lehmann, Arsenal have a goalkeeper of genuine stature and quality in the nets. Lehmann, of course, was the only first team signing in that summer that led to Arsenal scaling unthinkable heights. It would be follish to expect Čech to be the catalyst for a similar achievement, but I do believe he takes us a step closer to winning the Premier League again.
Especially when you look ahead at our midfield options. It’s been said elsewhere, but the incredible array of talent Arsène Wenger has at his disposal in that area now means that all notions of a “First Choice XI” have been put to bed and the manager can now pick a team according to the specific demands of the fixture in front of him.
We are now at a point where Jack Wilshere can replace Abou Diaby as the group’s permacrock and barely a ripple is heard. Looking at the line up on Sunday, Santi Cazorla was moved wide to accommodate Aaron Ramsey’s return to central midfield. You can bet your bottom dollar he (Santi) won’t be there for long when Alexis returns, though. Whilst the Ox may seem like an obvious fall guy, if he continues playing as he has been, it’s difficult to see him being dropped and nobody is going to drop the Santi of last season. With Alexis surely one of the first names on the team sheet, it’s a nice problem for the manager to have.
One side effect of this strength in depth in midfield is that Theo Walcott will begin the new season, freshly minted contract tucked into his shorts, harbouring genuine aspirations of finally claiming the centre forward spot from Olivier Giroud. With Arsène now evidently prepared to give Walcott a go up top, perhaps the doubts over Giroud’s capability to lead Arsenal to the Premier League title are to be resolved from within. It may seem unlikely. Walcott is far less rounded centre forward than the Frenchman but, crucially has pace to burn and, as Helen Trantum recently observed, is usually pretty handy in front of goal. Again, it’s a question of horses for courses.
With Danny Welbeck, as physical as Giroud and almost as fast as Walcott (but seemingly lacking in composure) also to return to the fold, I find it difficult to credit reports that Arsenal will spend £45m on Karim Benzema. Don’t get me wrong, I’d be happy if we signed him, it’s hard to argue that he wouldn’t represent an improvement on our striking options. I’m just not sure that the improvement would be worth the transfer fee.
Time will tell, I guess. In the meantime, we have some football to look forward to. It’s only four days away.
Come on Arsenal!