Opening games can be tricky. Very often, teams are not completely fit yet. Sometimes, they lack urgency because they keep playing at the pace of the summer friendlies. A year ago, Arsenal opened its season with a 3-1 loss to Aston Villa. Maybe there was a bit of anxiety when the Gunners kicked off their Premier League campaign on Saturday, but in the end they showed enough desire to grind out a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace.
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Wenger fielded the same starting lineup that faced Manchester City in the Community Shield. Arsenal dominated ball possession at the Emirates stadium but lacked fluidity in its passing game because of some average understanding with the newcomers (Debuchy, Chambers and Sanchez) as well as fitness issues (Wilshere, Gibbs).
Crystal Palace’s negative approach also contributed to the Gunners’ travails on the pitch. The Eagles parked the bus while Speroni wasted time for every goal kick. They had only two shots compared to 11 for Arsenal and made six more fouls than the hosts. Ironically, that cynicism came back to bite them. Puncheon first earned a yellow card by fouling Ramsey to stop a counterattack in the 48th minute. The Crystal Palace winger was then sent off in the 89th for a second booking after a late tackle on Monreal.
Sanchez’s pinpoint passes
Sanchez still has to work on his understanding with his new teammates, but I thought his performance for his first Premiership match was outstanding. He’s a ‘nine and a half’ a bit like Cazorla. Sanchez can make assists but is not a playmaker (#10). And he can score goals although he’s not a striker (#9). His movement and passing skills troubled the Crystal Palace defense quite a few times. Sanchez found Wilshere on the edge of the box in the 29th and the England midfielder curled a low shot that Speroni turned around the post.
Arsenal’s equalizer came from a foul on Sanchez in the 45th. Koscielny ghosted past Hangeland to head in Sanchez’s subsequent free kick. The Chile international then made a deep run in the 69th but his low drive lacked power to beat Speroni. Three minutes later, Sanchez connected with Ramsey, whose 25-yard effort forced Speroni to make a save. In the closing minutes, Sanchez played Giroud in, but the France striker fired wide from a tight angle.
A matter of percentage
Sanogo got the nod over Giroud because he’s in a better shape at this stage of the season. His performance at the Emirates Cup gave the fans some hope, but Sanogo still needs to make that extra step to become a reliable starter because there’s a gap between friendlies and competitive games. Basically, you have less time on the ball, you need to be a bit more focused, a bit quicker and a bit more accurate. That’s just one or two more percent but that’s a lot at the top level.
Sanchez knocked the ball down for Sanogo in the ninth minute, but the Frenchman took two touches before losing the ball. He definitely needs to be sharper in his decision-making. The best option for him in that situation would have been a first-time effort. After winning the ball back in the 27th, Sanogo dragged his shot wide while he had three teammates in a better position to his left.
Saturday’s game was probably more tailored for Giroud. Sanogo feels more comfortable on the fast break while Giroud is more efficient back to goal. Hopefully, Sanogo’s static game will improve with time. Giroud replaced him in the 62nd and came close to meeting a cross from Monreal in the 76th.
Desire makes the difference
Gibbs pulled his hamstring in the second half, forcing Wenger to make a substitution. That meant the manager had only one replacement left after Giroud came off the bench. The three obvious options were Oxlade-Chamberlain, Campbell and Rosicky. Wenger opted for Chambo, who’s more familiar with the Premier League than Campbell and who’s better at running at defenders than Rosicky.
In the last minute of regulation time, Koscielny headed a cross from Chambo toward Giroud, who knocked the ball down for Debuchy. Speroni denied Debuchy, but Ramsey slammed the rebound home. There’s no better example of desire than this play. Koscielny won the first header, then Giroud outjumped Hangeland to win the second ball, Debuchy stayed in the box although he’s not known for his aerial abilities, and finally Ramsey did what he does best: score a winning goal.
It’s a good start to the season but there are a few things I didn’t like in that game. Szczesny’s distribution and Koscielny’s decision-making are still erratic. Jedinak sent a long ball toward Puncheon in the 34th. Koscielny was ahead of the Crystal Palace winger but Szczesny ran outside the area to poorly clear the ball, which fell to Chamakh. The Morocco forward made a 50-yard goal attempt that was blocked by Koscielny. Campbell was about to get hold of the rebound, but Koscielny quickly got back on his feet for a 50-50 tackle. That play led to the corner which helped the Eagles open the scoring. Hangeland ran in front of a static Koscielny to nod in Puncheon’s corner.
Why did Szczesny feel the need to come off his line while Koscielny was in a good position for a clearance? And why did Koscielny almost give away a penalty while Campbell could only cut the ball back or take his chance from a tight angle?
Fixing defensive flaws
Zonal marking has been blamed for the goal but the true culprit is the players executing it. Zonal marking is not just about protecting a specific area. It also implies tracking opponents who could step into that area. Koscielny was watching the ball while he should have kept an eye on Hangeland, who started his run from behind the penalty spot. Instead of facing the touchline, Koscielny should have positioned his body parallel to the goal line.
Crystal Palace could have added a second goal in the 40th when Szczesny made a sloppy pass toward Koscielny, but Campbell missed his interception. Chambers has tremendous potential but the last thing he needs as a young defender is to be surrounded by erratic teammates. The English teenager had a solid performance but received a yellow card for a professional foul in the 44th. Chambers held Campbell to stop a counterattack while he still had Koscielny to cover him.
One lesson from this match is that the Gunners must find a way to quickly take the lead against average teams, otherwise they’ll waste a lot of energy throughout the season. Arsenal will face its first serious test on Saturday with a visit to Goodison Park. The Toffees won 3-0 in April. We’ll see whether the Gunners have fixed their defensive flaws.