Arsenal 0 Sunderland 0
The sun was suitably on its best behaviour as temperatures touched the 30s in England`s capital. It was an opening day with a difference for me too. It`s probably no secret that part of Arsenal`s media strategy over the last 12 months or so has been to reach out to Arsenal`s blogging community. The cynic in you would say that fansites and blogs are the only remaining arm of club media that is consumed that the club actually don`t control. The matchday programme is unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago. The club magazine and the official website are all carefully crafted with PR in mind.
In the last year bloggers and supporters` group representatives have been invited to the media launch of the new stadium tours, to view the medical facilities in the face of gathering criticism for the club`s injury record and a certain amount of seats are given over to non shareholders for the AGM. Two weeks ago I was e mailed by the club asking me if I wanted to watch the Sunderland game from an Executive Box so that the club could help to explain their new charity initiative for the season- The Arsenal Foundation. (For more on what the Foundation does, you can click this link http://www.arsenal.com/thearsenalfoundation).
It was an opportunity I jumped at. I`ve never seen an Arsenal game from a box before and I might never get the chance again. So for the first time since Ashburton Grove opened, I was not in my own seat. The club even allowed me a guest so my Mum was my plus one for the day. We arrived in Box 128 at around 1.30pm, the air conditioning providing welcome respite from the blazing heat. Some plump sofas, sandwiches and a fridge full of free beer welcomed us on arrival. I could get used to it. Certainly for home games. When we took the stadium move from Highbury I took a pragmatic view on where my seat should be. Having sat in the Clock End at Highbury, I decided to upgrade my seat settling on the fact that home games lack atmosphere anyway, so it didn`t feel like much of a trade off to search for a better view. Away matches, I thought, would provide me with the atmosphere.
We were positioned in the South West corner of the stadium. It took time to adjust so accustomed am I to my plateau in the East Stand. New boys Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla made their debuts with Olivier Giroud on the bench. Sunderland`s game plan was obvious and effective. Though they threatened on the counter attack in the first half. The Gunners still don`t look like their midfield is going to offer the best shield for the back four as Sessegnon played on the shoulder of Arsenal`s high line. Richardson was able to slip a ball in behind Mertesacker from the left, McClean latched onto it and fired goalwards, but Szczesny`s legs proved an effective barrier.
The highlight of Arsenal`s day was an impressive debut from Santi Cazorla, the schemer in the midfield that Arsenal have missed since Fabregas` departure. He jinked his way cleverly around Colback on the edge of Sunderland`s area before taking on a shot with his left foot that stung Mignolet`s palms. Having two operational feet gives you 50% more in terms of options compared to your one footed stooge. Sunderland nearly broke away again when Sessegnon teed up Colback, Szczesny was down smartly again to block.
The quality of Arsenal`s signings has created some understandable optimism, but one has to expect a slow start when your starting XI is in perpetual flux like ours is. It will take new players time to acclimatise to a new league and to one another. Diaby, Vermaelen and Walcott were the only three players you`d have expected in an Arsenal starting line up on the opening day of 2010-11. Arsenal`s next chance exemplified the missing in understanding despite the promising build up. Cazorla sprayed the ball wide to Gervinho, the Ivorian nudged the ball past Gardner and cut the ball back from the by-line, only for Cazorla and Podolski to attack the same ball, culminating in Cazorla scuffing it just wide. Given a little more time, they`ll read one another better.
Arsene admitted after the game that he`s trying to remould Podolski slightly into a central striker and you could tell he`s not quite there yet. He dropped very deep in search of the ball and it left no attacking thrust in the centre. Arsene has gone for a more direct team in recent seasons, but having three direct players like Walcott, Gervinho and Podolski in the same front three didn`t really work. It lacked guile and subtlety and lacked width as all three players tried to occupy a quite central place with the ball. I was certainly more enthused by Gervinho than Walcott, who stunk the place out frankly. It took Jenkinson a while to figure out that there was space for him to move into to add width to the Arsenal attack. Gibbs never quite did work it out. Personally, I think Santos is a superior left back and I don`t buy that he`s a bad defender. (If he came from any other country, the line would not be repeated half as often).
Diaby managed to find some space between Sunderland`s two banks of four, his connection with a shot from the edge of the box wasn`t quite as true as he`d have liked, but it looked to be snaking into the bottom corner until Mignolet got a hand to it. Arsenal`s three shots on target for the afternoon came from outside the area, which tells its own story. The positive was Cazorla. He`s a "bum off seat" player. The second he receives it, you think something might happen and he picks up good spaces between the lines. He found Walcott`s run into the channel, Theo manoeuvred past O`Shea but couldn`t quite get enough purchase on his cutback to Podolski and Gardner came in with a saving tackle.
One thing I could really get used to about watching from a box is half time. No queues, no hassle, no scrum for the toilets. Walk inside, there`s a fridge full of beers, a sofa and a screen showing highlights. It`s not bad. The second half was more of the same, only Sunderland surrendered all ambition- the stifling heat may have played a part there. Ramsey and Giroud came on for Podolski and Diaby, whilst Arshavin replaced the ineffective Walcott to try and add the guile we had been missing. Arsene usually likes for one of his wingers to be a direct, bustling type- (think Ljungberg, Walcott) and the other to be a creative type that drifts in field- Nasri, Pires). Giroud added some presence as he stayed on the shoulder of the Sunderland centre halves and made himself more of a target than Podolski had managed to.
Jenkinson`s right wing cross reached the Frenchman and he spooned a difficult volley over. But with the game nearing its end and Cazorla and his teammates physically dropping, they blew their best chance to win the game. Cazorla ventured to the edge of the Mackems box and played a clever reverse pass which Giroud read, but he couldn`t get his body shape right and lashed the ball wide when he ought to have scored. In the end the miss proved costly as Sunderland held on for a point. Arsene bemoaned a lack of creativity and it will be interesting to see how he introduces it to the team. Sahin looks set to replace Song and the Turk is, I`m told, more of a deep lying playmaker, so maybe we can add creativity there. But for me, the wings look unbalanced and I`m not sure we can play Gervinho and Walcott if Giroud or Podolski is going to be our central striker. It`s not really ideal that these problems are outstanding with the season started, though I`m sure they`re temporary. Next summer will need to be a quiet one at Arsenal. LD.