Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Competitive Community Shield rounds off positive pre-season

It’s very easy to write off the Community Shield as a glorified pre-season friendly, and considering the manner in which Manchester City played in the fixture against Arsenal last season, that is understandable. In Arsenal’s 3-0 victory in that match in 2014, both teams were missing some World Cup players and were in varying states of fitness. Against Chelsea this year, both sides were missing one key man each, Alexis Sanchez and Diego Costa, but otherwise were at full strength following a proper pre-season. Mock the trophy all you want, this was a seriously competitive game.
The match felt like it was more important for Arsenal than Chelsea, as the Gunners psychologically had to back up the talk from the team about being ready to properly challenge in the coming season, and to finally end the ridiculously annoying Mourinho hoodoo. That extra motivation helped make the difference as the Gunners defended magnificently and showed a steelier edge to win the game 1-0.
With the way he approached the game, Arsene Wenger wasn’t treating the match as a nice run-out before the serious stuff starts. It was a game he set his team up to win, rather than to experiment with team selection and have the players concentrating solely on fitness. Despite Santi Cazorla’s excellence in central midfield last season, he predominantly worked from wide areas on Sunday as Aaron Ramsey, usually the man to be pushed wide, started centrally alongside Francis Coquelin to give Arsenal more energy and more of a physical presence against the likes of Matic and Fabregas. Wenger now has the options, and the willingness to be tactically flexible, to pick teams tailored to the opposition, rather than just relying on Arsenal’s own game, and that was evident in that subtle switch he made between Ramsey and Cazorla.
Jose Mourinho, unsurprisingly, was moaning after the match. His suggestion was that the best team lost and the most defensive team won. Arsenal certainly sat deeper than they usually do, but they definitely looked the better team as they created the best chances, while Chelsea only had two shots on target to test former keeper Petr Cech. Arsenal showed signs that the team have learned from previous tactical mistakes as they were more selective as to when to push more players forward.
When Arsenal did choose their moments, they consistently looked threatening in the final third of the pitch. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain took the confidence from his goal in the Emirates Cup the previous week to set his stall out for the season with an excellent winning goal. On receiving the ball from Theo Walcott, I initially thought the Ox had made a mistake by cutting back onto his weaker left foot, but it was a great decision as he rifled the ball into the top corner.
It’s been well documented how this is a big season for Oxlade-Chamberlain as he’s a player that has all the attributes to be a phenomenal player. He’s quick, strong, skilful and can strike the ball really well when shooting. With Theo Walcott possibly being used more as a central striker, and Alexis Sanchez only just returning to training following the Copa America, there is an opening for the Ox to make the right hand side of the attack his own  with some strong early season performances.
Apart from the goal, Arsenal created plenty of good opportunities, particularly as the game became more stretched in the second half and Olivier Giroud was introduced to provide the Gunners with a focal point up front. The Frenchman fired over following a good cut-back from Ramsey, before Santi Cazorla and substitute Kieran Gibbs were both denied by some good goalkeeping from Courtois when one-on-one with the Belgian.
As the game wore on, even though Arsene Wenger was able to use a maximum of six substitutes, he only made three, and all were for tactical reasons, again showing that he was taking the game seriously rather than just bringing players on the sake of it as it was pre-season. Mikel Arteta came on to assist Francis Coquelin in disrupting Chelsea’s midfield and protecting the back four, which he did superbly, in what could an indication of the sort of role the club captain will take on this season.
Coquelin had another effective game in holding midfield, but when Chelsea did break through the Frenchman, they were faced with Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, both of whom where superb. Gabriel looks to be an excellent defender, but there’s no doubting that the Mertesacker and Koscielny partnership is Arsenal’s best option. Even though Loic Remy and Radamel Falcao hardly offered the most potent of threats, to restrict the Premier League holders to two shots on target was a tremendous effort.
And those two shots on target were of course saved by Petr Cech. The Arsenal debutant wasn’t completely without work as he was commanding in coming for crosses and gave that calming influence between the posts that Arsenal fans have wanted for so long.
The Gunners saw the game out well to win 1-0 with a very encouraging performance. It might not be a big psychological blow to Chelsea, but the win is definitely a big psychological boost for Arsenal, with the trip to Stamford Bridge likely to show just how big that boost may or may not be.
Overall, it’s been an excellent pre-season with competitive matches and successful performances in which Arsene Wenger has been able to experiment a bit with combinations in the team. Arsenal have now beaten Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea in 2015, with big performances against the best teams becoming a more regular occurrence, rather than an exception to the trend. To get over the Chelsea hurdle before the serious stuff kicks in is great, plus the bonus of a trophy just gives the players another taste of success. It just all adds to the feeling that something exciting is building up at Arsenal.
Just finally, I can’t write about the game and not mention Arsene Wenger blanking Jose Mourinho after the Chelsea manager tried to look gracious by shaking the players’ hands as they returned from the royal box at Wembley. Too much media attention has been paid to it, as Mourinho would have wanted (I realise making a point of mentioning it in this blog does add to the media coverage of the incident in a very small way), but I don’t see why Arsene Wenger should feel like he has to acknowledge Mourinho. The two clearly have their differences, but after Mourinho has said things that are beyond disrespectful to Arsene Wenger, it was great to see the Gunners’ boss not give him the time of day. Wenger in general does seem to have a bit more of strut about him than in previous years as he, like the fans, seems excited about the potential for his team this season.
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