In an ideal world, Alexis Sanchez would have linked up brilliantly with his team mates, Arsenal would have played some flowing football and the rest of the league would be taking note of a serious statement from the Gunners in a demolish of Crystal Palace on the opening day. After the comfortable 3-0 win in the Community Shield, the excitement surrounding new players and facing a manager-less team, that is exactly what some expected from Arsenal on the opening day of the new Premier League season.
But, of course, football is rarely an ideal world. Even without Tony Pulis in the dugout, Crystal Palace had all the hallmarks of a team prepared by the former Stoke boss, and were difficult to break down. Arsenal struggled to find any rhythm, the passing was sloppy and they weren’t concentrating defensively so conceded from a simple set piece.
Without Per Mertesacker, Arsenal’s organisation at a first half corner wasn’t good enough, and it was too simple for Hangeland to run in front of the defenders and head into the far corner of the net. The zonal marking system wasn’t the reason for the goal, as it has generally served Arsenal pretty well, but it was the concentration which wasn’t good enough and the players at the front post didn’t deal with the cross well.
With the same starting XI that were so impressive in the first half last weekend against Manchester City, Arsenal’s midfield weren’t as incisive as the advanced two of Wilshere and Ramsey seemed slightly confused as to who was meant to be the creative hub of them team. Mesut Ozil won’t have been too concerned about getting his place back on seeing the link up play of the midfield. On the left, Santi Cazorla drifted inside as usual, but also had an off-day.
Yaya Sanogo, after being awkwardly effective against Manchester City, didn’t get much service and struggled to hold the ball up for others when he did receive it. The introduction of Olivier Giroud was necessary to get a proper target man to be able to bring the midfield runners into play. Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to bring some more direct running to try and create some space in the second half, but generally, Arsenal struggled to create any clear cut chances.
Having gone behind and playing against an organised team, it just wasn’t going to be a day for Arsenal doing things beautifully. With the attacking movements not clicking, it was set pieces that got the job done for the Gunners. The delivery into the box wasn’t great for most of the game, and Arsenal didn’t always commit enough players into the box with often just the centre backs and the centre forward in the area. When the cross was right near the end of the first half from Alexis Sanchez, Laurent Koscielny made an excellent spinning run behind the defence and did well to flick his header into the bottom corner.
The winning goal, when it finally came in injury time, came from persistence and a determination from Arsenal to will the ball over the line. Instead of just having three or four players in the box, Arsenal threw extra men in the area for the corner, with Debuchy and Ramsey crucially going into the mix as well. After a poor delivery initially, Oxlade-Chamberlain crossed the ball back in, Koscielny and Giroud fought well to keep the ball alive by winning headers and Debuchy spun in the six yard box to shoot. Aaron Ramsey, despite playing poorly, has a knack of being in the right place, and he was on hand to finish the rebound from a couple of yards out.
I’d be surprised if the Arsenal midfield plays as badly again this season, but ultimately, the poor performance didn’t matter on Saturday. With a truncated pre-season for some players, and only a few matches for the newcomers to get bedded in, Arsenal are still getting up to speed both physically, and as Arsene Wenger might say, footballistically. Hopefully the match will have been helpful for Arsenal’s fitness, as another test comes quickly on Tuesday with the Champions League qualifier away to Besiktas.
Having not won an opening day match since 2009, and having been on the verge of a meltdown after the bizarre defeat to Aston Villa in the first game last season, it was vital for the Gunners to get three points. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t pretty, it just mattered that it happened.