Sunderland Preview: A New Season, A New Beginning
So the wait is finally over. After three long months, Arsenal return to competitive football with a new-look side that promises much.
As one tweeter noted correctly, those who don’t follow football will never quite understand what fans go through on the first day of a new season. It’s a time of genuine hope and expectation. A first look at the new signings. A chance to see how your favorite players have progressed over the summer. A sense of optimism that this season will be better than the last.
And despite the loss of Robin Van Persie and Alex Song, there’s plenty of optimism around the Emirates. Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud have brought that feel-good factor and the performances of Walcott, Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain in pre-season have reinforced the belief that we have a better squad than in previous years.
Right, so let’s get into it then.
In team news, Arsene Wenger confirmed our injury concerns yesterday. Besides long-term absentees like Wilshere, Frimpong, Rosicky and Sagna both Koscielny and the Ox are sidelined for this game. Walcott will be assessed before the match but is likely to start while Mikel Arteta has recovered sufficiently to feature as well.
Apart from injuries, the manager will take into account the fitness levels of the players. At Cologne Podolski looked more ready than Giroud so I expect the German to lead the line. Walcott and Gervinho should start on the flanks, both wide men impressing in pre-season games. Santi Cazorla is likely to play in the hole behind Podolski. That is if he has sufficiently recovered from flying halfway around the world (twice) to play in a meaningless friendly in Puerto Rico in midweek.
Now that Song is gone, Arteta will be partnered by either Abou Diaby or Francis Coquelin. Because we’re at home against a team unlikely to be adventurous, I think Diaby will get the nod ahead of Coquelin even though he still looks a bit leggy. Arteta will continue to mop up and channel possession from deeper in midfield as he did so brilliantly last season.
At the back, new captain Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker are definite starters. The full-back slots are up for grabs but I think Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson will get the nod ahead of Andre Santos and Nico Yennaris.
The visitors are suffering from injury problems themselves. Brown and Bardsley are out while Sessegnon will face a late fitness test. Apart from injuries, Martin O’Neill’s side are seriously lacking firepower up top despite signing Louis Saha. Frazier Campbell, Ji Dong-Won and Connor Wickham are all inexperienced at this level and they will miss the goals of Bendtner unless a new striker is added before the transfer window closes.
Against the bigger teams, Martin O’Neill sets up his side to defend solidly and profit from counter attacks in a 4-4-1-1 formation. But O’Neill will be conscious of not allowing Cazorla time on the ball so he may pack midfield to stifle Arsenal’s creativity.
The Gunners will try to do what we always try to do – boss possession for long periods and break down the opposition with quick passing and combinations.
Santi Cazorla will be the focus of attention this afternoon. Not only will the Spaniard be expected to provide impetus to our attacks but the ex-Malaga man will also pose a threat from corners and free-kicks. In addition, he’s not shy at having a go from distance as borne out by the eight goals he scored last season from outside the box.
But with Sunderland working hard to keep us at bay and many players yet to reach full match fitness, clinical finishing will be vital today. In that respect, Lukas Podolski is the right choice to play as the lone striker because of his efficiency in front of goal and work rate up front.
I believe Gervinho will be a key player as well not only in this game but during the season. The Ivorian put in some impressive performances in pre-season perhaps motivated by competition for places in wide areas. It was his assist that set up Van Persie’s first goal in the same fixture last year but for him to have a bigger impact this season, Gervinho has to improve his final ball and decision-making.
Sunderland will rely heavily on their wingers Larsson and McLean to support Saha on counter attacks. They are also dangerous from set-pieces with ex-Gunner Larsson more than capable from dead ball situations.
Of course our Achilles heel last season was our woeful defending. Steve Bould is working hard on Arsenal’s shape and structure without the ball. It’ll be interesting to see if there any signs of progress but it’s unrealistic to expect drastic improvements immediately. As such, Arsenal are still likely to be most vulnerable during transitions.
It’s a fixture the Gunners expect to win every year and this afternoon will be no different. Cazorla’s ambidexterity and Podolski’s efficiency should compensate for Van Persie’s stellar form. And if we defend better than we did at the end of last season, three points and a winning start are very much on the cards.
Score prediction: 2-0 to the Arsenal.
Enjoy the game. Come On You Gunners!!
P.S.: The new Arsenal Matchday Programme for iPad is hugely impressive. The first issue for today’s game is free, check it out here.