Arsenal vs Sunderland Preview: 8 Things to Watch for in Saturday's Match
In a whirlwind of a week that saw Arsenal striker and team captain Robin van Persie head north for the riches of Manchester, Sunderland completed the second signing of their offseason, bringing in 34-year-old striker (and former Red Devil) Louis Saha on a one-year deal.
Arsenal fans will have fresh memories of the Frenchman, whose predatory goal opened the scoring for Tottenham at the Emirates in February's north London derby.
Thankfully, from an Arsenal perspective, that game would quickly turn on its head, teetering decidedly in the Gunners' favor.
But Saha's menace has not diminished with the onset of age, and one would expect that Black Cats manager Martin O'Neill will have him feature on Saturday in both teams' league opener.
For Arsenal, the day will be a strange one. There will be a new team captain and a definite dearth of goals at the forward position.
Van Persie, who nabbed 30 strikes in league play last season, will be sorely missed. But thanks to a concerted effort this offseason to offset the potential loss of the Dutchman, replacements were brought in in a timely manner.
The three newcomers will almost surely feature.
Here are eight other things to watch for.
Olivier Giroud at Forward
Olivier Giroud picked up right where he'd left off for France during Wednesday's friendly against Uruguay.
Ghosting into a dangerous space at the near post, the 6'4" striker pounced upon a bending corner kick and managed to nod the ball on toward the back post. The flick fell perfectly into the path of central defender Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, but the youngster could only manage to head his shot off the post.
Giroud's 21 league goals last season for Montpellier were the talk of the summer, but his ability to link up play in the final third was rarely discussed.
To consider the Frenchman as nothing more than a goalscorer is a severe detriment to his worth as a player. Giroud is superb when playing with his back to goal, but before Arsenal fans scream "So was Chamakh!", the new No. 12 combines that capability with a searing left-footed shot, which he is never loathe to unleash.
Those attributes will be a welcome addition to the Arsenal attack and have already been seen in Sunday's friendly against FC Cologne, when Giroud could easily have counted himself unlucky for not managing a brace thanks to some superlative goalkeeping from Timo Horn.
Wenger had said previously that he did not expect to use Giroud or Lukas Podolski against Sunderland, citing their participation at the European Championships as a deciding factor.
But the manager also said he would not use them in preseason, a plan that went by the wayside this past weekend when Giroud enjoyed 45 minutes and Podolski almost 70 against Cologne.
One would think, with Van Persie now gone, both will be included in some manner.
Despite bagging a brace against his former club—granted, one was a penalty—some felt that Lukas Podolski failed to impress in a big way in his debut for Arsenal.
In a season where Arsenal are pushing for trophies, the German international with more than 100 caps at age 27 will need to be at his considerable best.
The good thing about Podolski, however, is that aside from his scoring lies a very, very good footballer.
Take Arsenal teammate and compatriot Per Mertesacker, who moved quickly to defend Podolski after Germany's 2-1 win over the Netherlands in their final match of the European Championship group stages.
Podolski had drawn some criticism for his attacking display—or lack thereof—in that one, but Mertesacker reminded viewers that there is far more that a player doesn't have to get his name on the score sheet to have a huge impact on a match.
"Defensively, it was a great game from Lukas," the tall central defender told Arsenal's official website.
Podolski had been charged with containing the threat of Dutch winger Arjen Robben, whose threat he was keenly attuned to after facing the winger during the past three Bundesliga seasons.
"(Podolski) had to cover for (right-back) Philippe Lahm, with Robben on his flank, and he did it very well. Especially in the first half, he covered him all the time and it was two against one on Robben.
"I think that was more important than his attacking qualities today. But every Arsenal fan will soon see what he can do offensively."
They certainly got a preview against Cologne, where Podolski finished his second goal with aplomb, smashing a shot across helpless keeper Timo Horn.
Combined with some neat interplay and savvy footwork, it was a good showing from the new No. 9. Keep an eye upon him and Giroud this weekend. Both are sure to combine up front should they see the pitch together.
Santi Cazorla Pulling the Strings in Midfield
Cazorla wasted little time in acclimating himself to the style of play at Arsenal, showing the intricate touches and uncanny vision that are prerequisites to play in the middle three for Wenger.
"Santi Cazorla's crisp and creative passing stood out in the first half (against Cologne)," Arsenal.com blogger Kevin Mooney said in his weekly round-up.
Quite that auspicious beginning for a man many Arsenal fans are pegging to be one of the driving forces toward silverware this season.
Cazorla's versatility, combined with his nose for goal, will be welcome assets. There is a question as to where he will end up playing most frequently—will it be on the wing or more centrally—but that is a terrific problem to have if you're Wenger.
That the Spaniard can cause problems from any number of positions on the pitch will be crucial, particularly against a Sunderland side in flux. Expect him to start.
Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Koscielny Face Fitness Battles
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While the injuries are not believed to be too serious, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Laurent Koscielny and Theo Walcott all run the risk of late fitness tests ahead of the Sunderland match.
This may have amounted to nothing more than a precautionary measure by Wenger, who will expect big things from all three this season and likely did not want to run the risk of them worsening their knocks in a meaningless friendly.
While Koscielny may be saved for the following weekend's trip to Stoke, both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain will likely feature in some fashion.
If Song's a No-Go, Will We See Coquelin?
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Few players can attest to enjoying the sort of debuts as did Coquelin last season.
After a terrific display in central midfield against Shrewsbury Town in a September Carling Cup match, Coquelin was thrown into the cauldron of White Hart Lane and his first north London derby in the first game of October.
Not only did Coquelin acquit himself well, the young Frenchman was named Man of the Match by a poll of Arsenal fans.
He has shown terrific versatility in his brief first-team tenure, playing as both a central midfielder and right-back last season.
Should Alex Song be on his way to Barcelona by Saturday, or if Wenger elects not to play him, it would follow that Coquelin would be next in line to assume the Cameroonian's midfield role.
Vermaelen's First Game as Team Captain?
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The Belgian central defender has displayed a captain's veneer ever since joining from Ajax three years ago, and with Van Persie off now, it is expected that he will assume ownership of the armband full-time.
There are few players better suited to the role. Vermaelen has earned numerous plaudits from fans and announcers alike for his heady play in defense and superb tackling.
He is prone to the odd error, but with new assistant manager Steve Bould on board, Vermaelen has voiced confidence in improved defending from Arsenal this season.
Worries at Right-Back?
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Arsenal fans' hopes will have been buoyed by the news that right-back Bacary Sagna is expected to return from a broken leg by September, one month ahead of schedule.
Until then, it's likely that Wenger will opt for youngster Carl Jenkinson at right-back.
With a title push on the cards, it's somewhat daunting to think that a 20-year-old with limited amounts of Premier League football under his belt will be manning that flank for at least the first month of the season.
But Jenkinson has looked good in preseason, getting up the wings well and showing improved technique on his crossing.
Defense will obviously be his first priority, but there were few reports indicting his quality in that regard this preseason.
Gervinho the Joker?
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He has looked every bit the attacking force that Arsenal fans expected to see last summer, when the Ivorian signed from Lille after helping the side to a domestic double.
The confidence is flowing, best displayed by Gervinho's keen desire to dribble at defenders and go for goal.
He can pick a pass as well, but an improved return on goal should be in the cards for him this season.
At the very least, let's hope he starts this season better than he did the last one. Considering Joey Barton won't be in the lineup for the Black Cats, that shouldn't be too tall an order.