For Arsenal, every step forward seems to be met almost instantly with at least one in the opposite direction. Perhaps no Premier League club oscillates between the opposing moods of unchained optimism and desperate pessimism quite as regularly as the Gunners do.
Last weekend was a prime example. At Goodison Park on Saturday evening, Arsenal were 2-0 down to Everton before half-time, leading to an immediate (and often angry) outpouring of disquiet among fans on social media. Having struggled so badly in away games against top sides last season—a trend that led to pointed questions about the squad’s mental strength—the two goals from Seamus Coleman and Steven Naismith were taken as an early sign that this was a case of "New season, same old problems."
Then, suddenly, Arsenal rallied. Aaron Ramsey got one goal back and, in a thrilling finish, substitute Olivier Giroud showed his strength to hold off Sylvain Distin and power home an equalising header. Suddenly Arsenal had rescued a draw; suddenly Sunday’s newspapers were hailing this Arsenal side as one with a new steely resolve.
Giroud had been crucial to that, even though he has long been a maligned figure in north London. He is undoubtedly a fine goalscorer, but many argue (with good reason) that he tends to struggle in the biggest games—that he is not the truly world-class forward almost all the other top Premier League sides have.
Too good to be a back-up, not good enough to be the main man; the Giroud paradox.
Saturday at Goodison Park threatened to be a new dawn for Giroud, but immediately after the game Arsene Wenger expressed concern that the Frenchman had picked up an injury in the final few seconds of the game and that his first reaction (to Sky Sports) was that it "didn't look too good."
Further scans would uncover the extent of the injury—after surgery on a small ankle fracture, Giroud is now expected to be out until January.
That leaves Arsenal facing a quandary once again, with a headache in deciding how they will cover Giroud’s absence. Alexis Sanchez played the lone striker role against Besiktas, guiding the side into the Champions League group stages, but he was hauled off after only 45 minutes in a similar role against Everton. To ask him to play that spot for half of the campaign seems an unfair amount of pressure to put on one player, however great he may be.
Unless Arsenal buy someone, which surely remains a possibility despite Wenger’s insistence to the contrary, that leaves Yaya Sanogo and Lukas Podolski as the only alternative strikers. Sanogo, of course, has yet to score a senior competitive goal for the club, while Podolski has been linked with a move away from Emirates Stadium, as per The Guardian.
While Sanogo certainly seems to have a solid future in the game, it would be ridiculous to suggest that trio can carry the weight of a title challenge on their shoulders for the next four months—not unless Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla go on an almost unprecedented run of goal scoring and providing.
After the win against Besiktas, Wenger said (per ITV):
You will ask me straight away who we will buy. I give you the answer—at the moment, no-one.
If you want to make everyone happy you buy all of these players but what is important is the performance on the football pitch. If you look at the players we had on the bench and those out injured, we have players. You cannot buy every time a player is injured.
If Arsenal do not buy a striker, which surely remains a possibility considering the club’s recent track record of shying away from “enforced” deals, then Giroud’s injury seems to rather puncture all the pre-season optimism.
We already knew that Manchester City and Chelsea both had far more complete squads than the Gunners, squads that can cover an injury in pretty much every position on the pitch. But Arsenal’s paper-thin squad should give comfort to both Liverpool and Tottenham (and Everton?) as those teams embark on their seemingly annual assault on the top four.
Tottenham were not in that lucrative bracket at the end of last season, but Mauricio Pochettino’s side have started with two wins from two and, judged solely on the evidence of Sunday’s QPR win, are already beginning to click as an attacking force. With so many attacking options—and seemingly an astute head coach overseeing it all—it is perhaps not ludicrous to suggest they can be there or thereabouts come the season’s end.
Certainly, if Arsenal do not replace Giroud, they may get a chance to build an early advantage.
Leicester City, who the Gunners face on Sunday, might not be the right opponents to expose those shortcomings. Then again, they might be exactly the team to expose those issues—highlighting their own survival credentials at the same time.
Pessimism and optimism are never far apart at the Emirates but, if Giroud’s absence remains unaddressed, it might get a lot darker before the next dawn.
Week 2 Fixtures (all games 3 p.m. BST (10 a.m. ET) unless otherwise stated)
Burnley vs. Manchester United (12:45 p.m.)
Newcastle United vs. Crystal Palace
Manchester City vs. Stoke City
QPR vs. Sunderland
Swansea City vs. West Brom
West Ham vs. Southampton
Everton vs. Chelsea (5:30 p.m.)
Aston Villa vs. Hull City (1:30 p.m.)
Tottenham vs. Liverpool (1:30 p.m.)
Leicester City vs. Arsenal (4 p.m.)
1. What to look out for this week
How much worse can it get?... After the midweek debacle against MK Dons, would it actually be something of a surprise if Manchester United escaped from Turf Moor with a victory over Burnley? Louis van Gaal has endured a horrible start to his tenure, albeit one made far more difficult by a ridiculous slew of injuries. That issue persists against the Clarets, but will Van Gaal's 3-5-2 work? With his team looking so confused and disorganised to this point, it will be interesting to see whether the outspoken Dutchman sticks to his convictions or accepts a (perhaps temporary) defeat and reverts to a more familiar formation.
What will the Foxes say?... On the face of it, a fixture list that began Everton (h), Chelsea (a), Arsenal (h) was surely about the worst run a newly promoted side could ask for—starting well invariably proving so important to Premier League survival. Leicester City, however, seem to have taken great confidence from their opening two performances, with the chance to build on that momentum in front of the television cameras on Saturday afternoon. It might see them underline the growing feeling among experts that there is little chance they will be relegated this season.
Back to the future at the Palace... Crystal Palace look to move on from the past few weeks at Newcastle, with a new (old) manager in charge and a new (old) star player to excite the terraces. Wilfried Zaha was slightly too young to be a part of Neil Warnock's first spell at Selhurst Park, but chairman Steve Parish clearly hopes the return of both men will reinvigorate the club after a chastening few days. With the transfer deadline looming, it will be interesting to see who else arrives before the deadline passes.
The architect of their demise... If Diego Costa is supposed to be (and very much looks like) the cutting edge of Jose Mourinho's improved Chelsea team, then Cesc Fabregas is supposed to be its more intuitive operating system. Costa looks likely to miss the weekend's game against Everton, putting further onus on Fabregas to live up to his billing. The Spaniard was imperious against both Burnley and Leicester, but the Toffees (at home) will be a more complex challenge. It will be interesting to see how he and his side fare.
2. Video of the week
The most competitive game of the weekend deserves a full tactical breakdown.
3. Player to watch
Romelu Lukaku. The 21-year-old Belgian has not had to wait long for the game he perhaps wants above all others—the chance to face old club Chelsea in front of his new supporters at Goodison Park. After failing to establish himself at Stamford Bridge and/or earn Jose Mourinho’s chance, he will surely be hell-bent on making a point in this meeting—after being ineligible for both meetings last season due to Premier League loan rules.
On the face of it, there can be few players you would less like to face when they are motivated to perform. John Terry and Gary Cahill will surely expect a hard afternoon. Then again, if Mourinho’s comments about Lukaku’s fragile psyche are accurate, perhaps the stage will prove a bit too big for the still-maturing youngster.
Then again, if that is the case, perhaps that’s why Roberto Martinez has signed Samuel Eto’o.
4. Game of the weekend
Tottenham vs. Liverpool. As mentioned above, both these sides will perhaps be encouraged by Arsenal’s early striker issues and may think that, coupled with Manchester United’s enduring problems, really opens up that top-four pursuit.
Liverpool, of course, are looking to repeat the feat, having finished second last season, but are looking to do it with a new-look side. Spurs, meanwhile, are hoping they have finally found the right manager in Mauricio Pochettino—a hope that certainly seemed far from distant in the way his team performed in last weekend’s 4-0 win over QPR.
Last season, this fixture summed up the different point the two sides were at—Spurs, disjointed and lacking leadership, Liverpool so fluid in attack behind the catalysing force of Luis Suarez. The Reds won 5-0, Andre Villas-Boas was sacked days later.
Now it is Liverpool who are fitting a load of new pieces to their post-Suarez puzzle, with Spurs looking settled under their new boss. The game perhaps comes too soon to make definitive conclusions, but it should be an interesting barometer of two clubs growing more confident in their top-four aspirations.