Everyone loves a new beginning, that’s the primary reason we remain football fans. There is always a new season to look forward to, new signings to hail as the greatest ever and renewed hope that maybe this season would be the season. Arsenal fans are just like every other fan, maybe more hopelessly hopeful.
For the first match of a new season, there are basically two things to look out for; how well will the new signings bed in and whether the team’s past failings have been rectified. For Arsenal, the question was whether record signing Alexandre Lacazette will gel immediately and if Arsenal’s capacity to self-destruct will manifest its ugly head again at the start of another season.
Well, it took only a few minutes for both questions to be answered. The good news was that Lacazette got his first league goal of the season as soon as it was humanly possibly, nodding in under 90 seconds. The bad news was it was still the same ol’ Arsenal. Inexplicably, before the home fans had time to settle, Arsenal conspired to grant Leicester the equaliser, with Okazaki out jumping Granit Xhaka to equalise for the Foxes.
For a defence lacking the choice of four senior centre backs through the combination of injury, suspension, match fitness and Gary Cahill’s elbow, perhaps a few scares were expected. But what happened next was maybe not expected but very familiar for those who have watched season openers featuring Arsenal. Time and time again, the Arsenal players gave away the ball in critical areas, with Rob Holding the worst culprit.
Even with Danny Welbeck giving Arsenal the equaliser in first half injury time, there were still sizeable gaps in the Gunners defence, exemplified by the backline leaving Jamie Vardy the freedom of the box to stroll in and give his team the lead.
One would think the interval would give the home team the chance to reassess what went wrong and take steps to prevent it happening again. But no, this is Arsenal we are talking about. Not yet 10 minutes into the second half and Vardy found himself in acres of space at the edge of the six yard box at a corner and duly headed the ball past Petr Cech.
Expectedly, the mood in the stadium turned dark; the fans probably remembering how season openers of the past years transpired. The visibly shaken manager rang the changes soon after; bringing in Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey for Rob Holding and Mohammed Elneny. This meant a change in formation from the back three to a back four of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Nacho Monreal, Saed Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin at left back.
The manager introduced the back three at the tail end of the season to shore up the team’s leaky defence. But as it showed immediately the changes were made, that change in formation shackled the team’s attacking prowess. A little bit handbrake. Once the substitutes came on, it was immediately evident that the team was better going forward.
No matter how many times the Sky Sports presenters bring it up, it never looked like a deliberate handball when Mesut Ozil brought down the ball in the move that led to a corner, that led to the Aaron Ramsey equaliser. Nope. For someone who has not had his greatest game, Xhaka produced a sumptuous ball over the top to the Welshman who controlled it brilliantly and put the ball past the keeper. Game on.
Just at the precise moment this writer was wondering whether Olivier Giroud had even touched the ball since his substitution, he popped up with a magnificent header. Despite his shirt being held by Harry McGuire and moving away from goal, he still managed to generate enough power and direction to sneak the ball under the crossbar.
And all was left was to see the game out. Even if a win is a win, this was a torturous way of getting and it raises a lot of questions about whether this team is ready and willing to challenge for the title.
Questions like how long is the manager going to persist with the three at the back system. Also if every match involving the Arsenal would resemble a shootout. And when will we be able to play with at least two centre-backs at a time.
Before the match kicked off, the studio analysts wrote off the chances of Arsenal winning the league and based on the performance, they may have a point. They are still more than few things to work out in this team and no better group of people to do that than Messrs Wenger, Bould and Lehmann. But it must gladden their heart that the team created a number of quality chances despite not playing particularly well.
They say attack wins you matches but defence wins you titles but if every match of the season ends this way, guess what, we would win it all.
SSSSHHHHH!!!! This might be our year.