Monday, August 14, 2017

Arsenal survive a Friday fright to get the season going

While there was something unfamliar about starting the season on a Friday night, there was something all too familiar about the way the Gunners capitulated on the opening day. In recent years, Aston Villa, West Ham and Liverpool have all walked away from the Emirates with three points in the first game as a result of some pretty ropey Arsenal defending. It looked as if Leicester City would do the same this season as they knocked in three cheap goals, but Arsene Wenger threw all of his attackers onto the pitch and the Gunners salvaged a 4-3 win with two late goals.
While the nature of the goals conceded is a concern, I’m inclined to write the game off as an unusual one because of the back three fielded by Arsenal. With Per Mertesacker’s face wound keeping him out, Rob Holding was joined in the back three by Nacho Monreal and Sead Kolasinac. While those three had done a decent job at Wembley against Chelsea in Mertesacker’s absence, the lack of leadership and experience was a problem. Nacho Monreal is a superb footballer but is much more suited to play on the left of the three rather than in the middle. Two set-pieces and sloppy play from Granit Xhaka allowed Leicester to expose these frailties.
But I’m not unduly worried because I’ll be staggered if that back three starts a game as a trio again this season. With Mertesacker and Gabriel to return from injury, Koscielny to return from suspension and Mustafi and Chambers to get up to full fitness, Arsene Wenger should have enough options to not have to resort to that combination again. The three will have big roles to play this season alongside others and in different positions, so hopefully the nightmare start defensively can be quickly forgotten.
One of those three, Sead Kolasinac still made a big impression on the game as he showed why he could be a great addition to the squad as a wing-back. The way he charged forward with regularity from centre-back arguably added to the chaos of the game, but it was effective. He looks perfectly suited to the wing-back role in Arsenal’s new system and is already achieved cult hero status, but he’s a cult hero who is a fine player as well.
While Kolasinac was a positive, Arsenal’s overall attacking game and the ability to change the match using the bench were the other big pluses to take from the match. The free big Bosnian contrasts well with Arsenal’s other new arrival in the summer with Alexandre Lacazette coming for a club record fee, and he got off to the perfect start by guiding Mohamed Elneny’s cross into the bottom corner in the second minute. The intensity and madness of the game will have been an eye-opener for the French striker in his first Premier League appearance, but he was able to contribute and didn’t look off-the-pace.
There was also a nice moment for Lacazette just after Arsenal scored to lead 4-3. In a break in play, he just took a few seconds to just take in the crowd noise as the whole ground sang about Arsenal being by far the greatest team. He’s played in some big stadiums and in some hot atmospheres, but Lacazette looked slightly in awe at the fans in the North Bank and made sure he soaked up the then raucous atmosphere in the stadium.
Along with Lacazette scoring in the first half, Danny Welbeck bagged the equaliser to level it up at 2-2 before half-time, with the assist from Kolasinac. 
After going behind again in the second-half, Arsene Wenger gambled. It’s not often you see the manager make such a drastic change during a game, especially when the defecit was only one goal, but with 25 minutes to go he decided to throw the kitchen sink at Leicester, except the kitchen sink was a bearded Frenchman and a Welsh wizard. While the back three were already in some slightly unusual positions, the switch to get Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey on the field meant an even more unconventional back four emerged with a right winger at right-back (Oxlade-Chamberlain), two left-backs in the centre (Monreal and Kolasinac) and a right-back at left-back (Bellerin). The potential for that to backfire and Wenger’s tactical nous to be severely questioned was massive, but somehow it worked.
Alongside Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey had a big influence on the game as he made late runs into the box and had the license to bomb forward and cause problems. When his chance came with eight minutes to go, he controlled Xhaka’s excellent pass with a deft touch before firing past the goalkeeper. I’m really optimistic of Aaron Ramsey having a big season for Arsenal, and it’s a good sign to see him score early in the campaign. All Arsenal fans have seen what can happen when you get a fit and fully confident Aaron Ramsey, and with Xhaka adding the control to the midfield, the Welshman can be afforded a freer role, one which he excels in regularly for Wales. 
Having equalised, it was left to the other substitute to win it for Arsenal. Xhaka’s corner was superbly headed past Schmeichel by Olivier Giroud via the underside of the bar after the Frenchman had wrestled off Harry Maguire and Wes Morgan to be first to the ball. I can’t emphasise enough just how good that header was given the pressure he was under. He was stronger than the defenders and managed to generate accuracy and power despite two players trying to pull him down. 
After the game, Arsene Wenger said that he did open the door for Giroud to leave if he wanted to because of the competition for places up front. I was surprised the manager did that because of the variation Giroud brings to Arsenal’s attack, but was even more surprised (and relieved!) that the striker didn’t take up that offer and decided to stay and fight for his place. As proved once again on Friday, he offers Arsenal something completely different to anyone in the squad. No other Arsenal attacker could realistically have scored the winner in the manner that Giroud did. With the defenders tiring after chasing the likes of Lacazette and Welbeck, Giroud is the perfect man to bring on and give them a completely different problem to think about.
With Lacazette, Welbeck, Ramsey and Giroud all scoring, it was great to see the team spread the goal-scoring load without Alexis Sanchez. Too often in recent seasons it has felt like the Chilean was the only player likely to stick one in the net, but even with him unavailable on Friday, there were dangerous players coming at Leicester from all angles. It leaves Arsene Wenger with some tricky selection decisions in attacking areas, but to have so many varied options off the bench gives me a lot of hope that even if the defending is a bit dodgy, this isn’t going to be an Arsenal team that lacks goals this season.
It was a serious scare for Arsenal on Friday, but with all the attention on the excellent contributions of new players to the team, it was an old hero, with his good looks and magnificent beard, who entered stage left and reminded everyone of his immense value to the club.