Just as with sweaty underwear at a Tom Jones concert, the conclusion of Arsenal’s first Premier League game of the season has been met with an inevitable deluge: of responses, analyses, speculations and the inevitable vast, sweeping conclusions.
Obviously this was always going to happen. Few clubs can boast the levels of intrigue and mystery and interest that Arsenal can, and especially after the tumult of yet another give and take transfer window, no club’s nits will be picked so meticulously as those of the Gunners’.
This game against Sunderland certainly had the setup of one that Arsenal would expect to be winning. The match was at home, the opposition mediocre, the most vital players—and, importantly, the new players—available.
There was an expectation of Arsenal to win this game, and there was a prevalent but guarded demand that it be in fluid and beautiful style showcasing a new hybridized team whose players would help prove to the world that the virtuosity of Wenger as a manager far exceeds the individual ability of any those great players who have left Arsenal over the past five years.
They didn't. But it's OK.
Under the Spotlight
Popular opinion has thus far been relatively concurrent: Jenkinson went some way to assuaging the fears over the right-back position, putting an unremarkable but solid performance.
Santi Cazorla’s debut went as well as we should realistically have expected. The Spaniard looked confident and assured on the ball, and his pass to Giroud was gorgeous—a delicate reversal which went completely against the grain of what everybody on the field except Cazorla himself was expecting.
The sort of pass, without meaning to dredge up ghosts of the past, that another ex-Arsenal Spaniard used to specialize in.
The fact that Cazorla managed to look as assured as he did in the Arsenal shirt, despite the jetlag that would have resulted from his midweek flight and the fact that he has spent the least amount of time of all the players training with the squad, speaks volumes as to his inherent quality.
The centre-backs looked solid, and other than the early scare which was well snuffed-out by Szczesny—who had a good game—never really looked like they were challenged by what was an admittedly underwhelming Sunderland attack. Arteta's protection of his back four was excellent, fundamentally based on his positioning and an inherent understanding of his role in the game.
As far as finishing went, we struggled, one must admit. But I think, without meaning to sound crass, that it is likely more difficult to unpick an opposing defense than it is to prevent an attack from unpicking you, and thus the attack—which contains three new faces—is still growing together.
Nevertheless, broad conclusions have immediately been drawn from the performance, and the response to this match has, in my view, been slightly over-the-top.
Arsenal’s attack, for example, has immediately been identified as a weakness within the team, and a possible barrier to success, because the team failed to score in their game over the weekend. It seems that within the confines of the ideal championship-winning team, 0-0 draws are prohibited.
Sometimes Barcelona draw 0-0 too, you know.
Olivier Giroud’s performance has drawn criticism for his glaring miss late in the game, and Podolski’s has been met with something close to indifference. Walcott’s match has been called everything from “useless” to “promising” to “somewhat nullified due to the fact that Sunderland played with 10 men behind the ball for a good 50 minutes of the game”, while Gervinho’s has been called encouraging, despite the fact that I personally thought he looked a bit resigned once he made it to the byline.
Now, OK, that's fair enough. We are all commentators and sometimes commentators' observations are different, but every commentator's observations deserve credit because they are observations and observations only add to the discussion, they never detract.
But some of the response to this match has made me feel...cynical, you might call it, in the nicest possible way. Doubtful.
Lots of discussion on the drastic implications that our opening performance foreshadows. The response to this match has made it feel like a poem being analysed in high-school—who knew that such a short period of time could signify so many earth-shattering revelations? I even managed to write a poem with them:
Giroud is struggling, Podolski's a waste
Walcott's invisible, Cazorla's from space
Arsenal's attack is inherently flawed—
Is that a pig flying? Yes, Chamakh has scored!
Anyway, meh to all that. As a deeper implication, I took one thing from this match. One thing only.
Ah yes, the thing.
The thing is...it is far too early to draw any comprehensive conclusions on the match whatsoever. This game should be viewed by fans and pundits alike as little more than another preseason friendly.
Just a week has passed since the Cologne game, and despite playing well that performance was far from perfect; are we to measure this match against an entirely different bar simply because it is in the Premier League? To do so, I think, is foolish.
While the scope of the match being played is undoubtedly important, and will impact on both the players used and the collective motivation of the team, expecting observable and dramatic improvements on the Cologne performance in just seven days—84 hours, if these blokes put in a 12-hour day—is unrealistic.
The players in a team need time to gel, time to get used to one another, time to develop their roles, their collective style, their understanding of their team-mates’ strengths and weaknesses.
At the moment they are still in the seed stage, still being fertilized, and to expect a young and tender tree to produce the sweetest of fruit, regardless of the quality of the seeds or the assiduousness of the care given to that tree, is unrealistic.
This is especially so when considering the new signings Arsenal have made, and how they fit into the side.
What We Can Look Forward To
Wenger was probably right in starting just Podolski and Cazorla against Sunderland. Asking the three new boys to come into the team and immediately become three of the five attacking focal points would have been foolish.
But, in truth, they responded extremely well. Cazorla will not even need a grace period—he has already slotted into the side’s style with almost no effort.
Giroud’s miss was a mark against him, admittedly, and abandoning prejudices for a second, it was a miss that van Persie would likely have converted.
But the most important thing was that Giroud was in that place at that time. He is a professional, remember, and one who scored a lot of goals in a title-winning team last year. If he would have problems at Arsenal, they would not be the result of a sudden inability to finish, but of failing to get himself into positions where he can finish, Chamakh being the case in point.
Podolski, well, that was something of a shame—he could have taken that game by the horns, particularly if he and Cazorla had not had their mix-up.
One of the things I love about Podolski is that he strikes me as being someone who listens to his heart, cheesy though that might sound. He is earnest.
When it comes to football, he plays with the unabashed enthusiasm and steely determination of a kid down at the park on a cold Saturday morning, and that’s not a sarcastic or a disparaging remark. His ego doesn’t get in the way of his performance, nor does he have an inflated idea of himself.
However, this means he is a confident player. In some parallel universe, Podolski screamed for the ball and Cazorla heard him and Gervinho’s cross was met with a jackhammer of a left foot which rifled the ball into the top-left corner and took Mignolet’s hand with it in the process, and that, I feel, would have changed Podolski’s game irrevocably.
His performances for Cologne—for whom he scored regularly, being as he was the only quality player in the now-relegated German side—compared to Bayern testify as much: when Podolski plays regularly, he scores, and when he scores, he keeps scoring. He’s quality. But he’s only quality if we are patient enough to realize and trust in that quality.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, 60 percent of our attack had never played together before, and when you consider that, they didn’t put in a bad show.
What is encouraging is Arsenal’s domination in the middle of the park, and in closing out the game. Abou Diaby looked good in the box-to-box role, while Arteta played the holding mid as though he’d been there his whole life.
A lot of people seem to think that defensive midfielder needs to be big and strong and aggressive—I was guilty of that myself for a time—and certain types of defensive midfielders do.
But a player’s mere presence will do just as much to detract the opposition from attacking a certain lane as whether or not that player might “Frimpong” you.
Arteta’s game is all gorgeous subtlety and mind-games; he protects his back-four—he doesn’t destroy anyone, he doesn’t make a huge number of tackles—but he is there, and I’d rather have a more acquiescent holding midfielder who knows the game and his role than a huge bollocking anchor man who eats children and pushes over old ladies, but whose knowledge of the game and understanding of his team’s needs is inferior.
That midfield will prove key to Arsenal. The fragility of the current defense and the "inexperience", shall we say, of the attack, means that the Gunners' strong-on-paper core will have to step up. The departure of Alex Song means Wenger is giving Abou Diaby one last throw of the dice, and the Frenchman will surely recognize this and appreciate that this season will define his career.
It is damn early in the season—actually, it’s pretty much as early as you can get—and that means that this performance should be taken with, if not a grain, certainly just a pinch of salt.
Victories this early on will come more from luck, individual brilliance and momentum than inherent team quality.
If our luck had been different, Podolski might have taken that shot, if Giroud had been slightly more brilliant, he might have buried that chance, and if Cazorla had nailed that scorcher from distance Arsenal could easily have gone on to put three or four past Sunderland, but that’s football.
What we can’t do is panic and start shouting things.
I hate being told to be patient more than just about anything in the world, but in this instance I have no hesitation in spreading the message. Arsenal still have a long way to go, but there are good signs: we dominated possession, we created chances, the new boys looked sharp and seemed to mesh, and we closed out the game expertly, generating chances till the bitter end.
Arsenal certainly don’t have any problems with motivation. The team has been publicly mocked by van Persie, they now have enemies in just about every team they’ll come up against, and every man and his dog is questioning their direction and status as a top-level club.
Those who stay will evolve a resolute collective mentality together; these are times of trial at Arsenal, but sportspeople are by definition competitors, and even in my own all-too-brief sporting career I remember that the very sweetest feeling in sport—that magical, warm, glowing orb that grows in your stomach and fills your entire being with that most rewarding feeling of utter satisfaction—is when someone says you can’t, and you do.
This group of players have been told they can’t all summer long, but they can, they know they can and that knowledge will bind them together with something stronger than bricks and mortar. What we must acknowledge is that they will take time.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Thus, we keep calm, carry on, and, in the bastardized words of Fitzgerald, beat back against the current, to steer ourselves ceaselessly and endlessly into that masochistic abyss of football.
N.B: Just as an aside—OK, I know you guys are American and all, but you will hopefully enjoy this as much as I do: The Queen supports Arsenal, and apparently has done for about 50 years. Yep. Uh-huh. I know, right.
New Zealand finally got electricity the other day, so I might be starting to jump on this whole Twitter bandwagon if you like me enough—@emiledonovan.