By Patrick Grove
There is a ton of conversation currently going on with regards to Arsenal’s recent and possible transfers. As you have probably all read more than your fair share about those things I am going to try to stay focused on providing a match preview for Saturday’s opening game against Sunderland at the Emirates.
For the first time since 2008, Arsenal are starting the season at home. Given the number of new recruits, the players outgoing, and the quality of the opponents, I’d say this is a great blessing. When starting the season at home, since 1992, Arsenal have won 9, drawn 2 and lost 2 of those matches. Three points would be a great improvement on last year’s opening as we’d have more points already than in the first 3 games of last season.
Make no mistake about Sunderland though. Under Martin O’Neill they had one of the best second halves of any premier league side last season. Even without a recognized striker (they picked up 34 year old Louis Saha today), they have pace on the outside with James McClean and guile through Seb Larsson. If they set up as usual trying to close down space and hit Arsenal on the counter, they will make some dangerous opportunities for themselves. Arsenal will have to be very focused on this match to get the desired outcome.
It will be interesting to see how the Gunners line up for their start of their new campaign. Long-term injuries to Sagna, Rosicky, and Wilshere, and short-term injuries to Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott, Koscielny, and Arteta make us a bit short on choices already. Factor in that Vermaelen played 90 minutes in midweek, Giroud played 74 minutes, and Cazorla played 90 minutes as well as having a long journey and you can see that our options for fully rested and ready players may be quite small. Throw in the fact that Song likely won’t play (based on his ever more likely departure, sorry, I know I said I’d stay focused) and our midfield options look meager. Some of those injuries that caused players like Walcott, Koscielny, Arteta and The Ox to pull out of international duty may very well have been precautionary but there’s no way to tell now. Hopefully, Arsene’s press conference can shed some light on these issues.
I’d guess we’ll start Gervinho, Podolski, and Theo up top. Gervinho has had a stormer of a preseason, showing why Arsenal spent the money on him. IF Theo overcomes his injury, he too looked sharp against Koln and could well get a starting bid. Podolski has looked very good in training (according to players) and has had the week to prepare. I think Giroud will come off the bench only because of his playing time in midweek.
In midfield, Diaby, Arteta (if fit), and Cazorla are likely to start. This goes against my previous idea that Arsene will want to rest those that played a good deal in midweek, but I think he really wants to see what his new creative hub (Cazorla) can do to help break down teams that sit back at the Emirates.
At the back, I would guess a lineup of Coquelin (Yennaris), Koscielny (Mertesacker), Vermaelen (soon to be announced captain, @bbcsport_david), and Gibbs. Coquelin because he already has some Premier League experience and has been shown to be quality (enough) at right back. Koscielny will start if healthy as he was easily our most consistent, highly-rated defender last season.
Remember these starting line-ups are just my personal predictions. There are so many ways we could line-up (Yennaris at RB and Coquelin in midfield, e.g.) it’s hard to call with so many “injuries” and changes to the squad recently.
In any case, if the players (and fans for that matter) can stay focused on the match and getting the season off to the right start, they should have no problem overcoming Sunderland at home. I say 2-0 to The Arsenal with goals from Gervinho and Podolski.