Last season started at 100mph. Playing at home, Arsenal looked decent going forward, but vulnerable at the back, playing out a match that ended 4-3. Last night, 12 months had past, though little had changed, with the same questions asked and the same scoreline occurring. Fortunately, this time it was a win over Leicester rather than a loss to Liverpool.
Supposedly, if you could only change one single thing from that Liverpool match, the outcome would be the thing, so it is important not to forget that last night did end with three points for the Gunners.
It does however fill you with nerves.
The wingbacks formation, so crucial in last term’s end of season upturn in fortunes, looked wayward last night. Without Laurent Koscielny, Skhodran Mustafi, Gabriel or Per Mertesacker, looking solid in defensive centrally was always going to be a tall order. Any club would miss their four first choice centre backs, particularly one who was looking to start the campaign playing with three of them in the 11.
It meant that Nacho Monreal played as the middleman, with Rob Holding to his right and new signing Saed Kolasinac on his left. Having played so well in that position during last weekend’s Community Shield, it was unsurprising to see the Bosnian here and Oxlade-Chamberlain playing wing back on that side.
The problems were clear from the off though. As brilliant as Monreal is, his strengths cannot be utilised when he is the one in the middle. His tendency to win the ball high up in the opposition half is a harder thing to do when you are effectively playing the sweeper role, taking away a crucial element of his play. That said, him perfecting his trait in first half injury time, lead to the first Arsenal equaliser, but by then there was an element of desperation in wanting to level before the break.
For Leicester’s second goal – via a brilliant delivery it has to be said – Arsenal were very sloppy. Granit Xhaka gave the ball away poorly. Hector Bellerin was too far up the pitch, while Rob Holding was too far behind to cover. Marc Albrighton’s whipped ball caused chaos, with Monreal and Kolasinac not sure who was meant to mark Jamie Vardy, and the striker duly pounced in the middle.
It was the kind of uncertainty you would hope would be alleviated by the presence of Kosicelny or Mertesacker playing in the middle, though that is not always guaranteed. In all likelihood, the plan will be for those two to come back into the back three, allowing Monreal to return to the left centre-back role and Kolasinac playing wing back.
When Vardy headed Leicester into the lead again after the break, Monreal could be seen screaming at his teammates as the Foxes wheeled away celebrating. The marking from an Arsenal point of view was shocking – again representing a clear lack of leadership.
However, that can’t be used as an excuse. Injuries and suspensions happen, as Arsenal well know, so to defend corners without seemingly any sort of plan was always going to end badly. Zonal marking has never been immune to criticism, with plenty of goals conceded using this method. It is unfathomable how Steve Bould – such a solid defender in his day – can be part of a coaching setup that looks so consistently vulnerable.
Despite all off that, we did win the game and that remains the most important thing.
Wenger is often guilty of over-playing the ‘mental strength’ card, as well as not making subs, which affect the game enough. Last night though, you could argue he got things completely right after Leicester’s third. The introductions of Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud obviously had massive impacts, while the resolve of the team was good to see.
The crowd, so often some of the staunchest critics in the land, stayed behind the team. There were some moans and groans, but the toxic atmosphere and the ‘Wenger Out’ shouts that played such a key role last year did not surface. Granted, it is only day one. However, it was nice to see the fans stick together, cheer the team on and take the three points.
Here’s to football being back. Let us just hope next weekend’s game at Stoke is more boring from a defensive point of view.