ARSENAL 0-0 SUNDERLAND
In hindsight, this was probably a thoroughly predictable and obvious result to start off the new season for Arsenal, who failed to fire in their opening Premier League encounter.
In searing heat, against a typically tough, deep and bus-parking Martin O’Neil Sunderland team, three days after an International friendly on the opening day when fitness levels are not entirely what they should be, most teams would struggle.
But for Arsenal, attempting to bed their new signings in, some of whom such as Santi Cazorla have travelled back from Puerto Rico and trying to come to terms with the loss of talisman Robin Van Persie and Alex Song, it was going to be doubly-tough.
The loss of Van Persie to rivals Manchester United has somewhat soured what had been a previously positive Arsenal summer and indeed the match played out under a subdued atmosphere, not helped by the sweltering heat.
Arsene Wenger began with a front three led by new signing Lukas Podolski with Cazorla orchestrating the play just behind. Fellow new signing Olivier Giroud began on the bench. With Song on the way to Barcelona, Abou Diaby, finally fit again, was chosen as his replacement, while Per Mertesacker came in for Laurent Koscielny at the back for his first Arsenal appearance since February.
After a slightly awkward start when Sunderland threatened with the pace of Stephane Sessegnon, the Gunners backline were virtual spectators as the Mackems parked the proverbial bus and simply soaked up Arsenal pressure (very well it must be said), inviting the hosts to come forward and attempt to break them down and although the Gunners tried, particularly through the inventive and impressive Cazorla, chances were at a premium until very late on when Giroud, to the anguish of the Arsenal fans, flashed the best and in truth his team’s only real chance of the game.
Following Sunderland’s opening spell, Arsenal dominated with Cazorla at the heart of things. The 27 year old Spaniard appears to have the makings of a fruitful partnership with Theo Walcott as he set the England speedster away on several occasions. Walcott looked menacing on occasions during the first half when carrying the ball at feet but faded significantly during the second period. On the other flank, Gervinho seemed to have the beating of his man and one good cut back found the feet of Cazorla who fired just wide, minutes after the man from Llanera, Spain had stung the hands of Sunderland keeper Simon Mignolet with a long range strike. Fellow summer arrival, Podolski, toiled somewhat, appearing unsure of his position and role in the side. The German will of course get better but his debut proved to be a little underwhelming, his best moment coming when he almost tapped in a Walcott cut-back a la Van Persie of last season.
The second period saw Arsenal become increasingly ragged as frustration, the heat and a lack of fitness seemed to take its toll. Although Cazorla continued to shine, proving that once fully up to speed, he will become the one of the jewels of the Premier League, the Gunners huffed and puffed but produced little quality in the final third despite the introductions of Giroud, Aaron Ramsey and the returning Andrei Arshavin. With time running out, a rare Sunderland defensive lapse allowed Cazorla to pick a beautifully weighted pass into Giroud. Inside the box with only the keeper to beat and dead central, you’d have expected a scorer of 21 goals in Ligue 1 last season to tuck it away. Somehow, he screwed it wide of the post. Wenger looked distraught and with that, the game petered out.
All in all, a frustrating start for Arsenal as they embarked on their post-Van Persie era. More will be expected from Podolski and Giroud but the signs are there for some positivity, particularly through the likes of Cazorla, The big question for Wenger to answer as he banks another £15m from the sale of Song to add to the Van Persie money, is does he dip back into the transfer market for more new blood. On the evidence of today, though admittedly it is early days, more cutting edge is needed.
Arsenal: Szczesny 6, Jenkinson 6, Mertesacker 6, Gibbs 7, Diaby 5, Arteta 5, Cazorla 8, Walcott 5, Gervinho 6, Podolski 4
Subs: Giroud 4, Ramsey 5, Arshavin 5