Arsenal concluded pre-season warmups with a win over FC Köln in which the club managed to not only score four goals but also to feature three exciting new signings, show off some improved defensive work, and even put an exclamation mark on the summer transfer saga of Robin van Persie by playing him 20 minutes whilst wearing the captain’s armband. If last summer at this time the phrase “PR Own Goal” featured prominently when talking about Arsenal, then this summer the phrase “a credit to the management” must feature just as prominently. For the first time in a long while, many Gunners are looking forward to the new season.
As is our wont, half of the Arsenal supporters are giddy as kittens over yesterday’s display and the other half are either quietly sulking or loudly warning not to read too much into the game as it was just a pre-season match against an inferior opponent. True, Köln was hardly Barcelona in a Champions League final or Stoke on a cold night in February (which Arsenal conveniently don’t have to play this year) but that doesn’t mean we can’t take away some positives and see some patterns developing.
This first half started with I Veto Mannone in goal and Mertesacker and Vermaelen (captain) paired along with Yennaris and Gibbs in the back line. For Yennaris, it’s a dream come true to play for Arsenal and despite seeing himself more of a midfielder has filled in admirably at right back when he has had a chance to play for the first team. The back line, though had little to do in the first half, apart from one shot which hit Mannone in the hands and which he nearly let slip in.
Despite that minor gaffe, defensively I thought this group looked very organized. I thought I may even have caught a glimpse of two banks of four at one point but can’t be sure as Stuart Robson wasn’t commentating on the official broadcast. Another subtle difference that doesn’t show up in any stat books is that the defenders looked very strong in aerial duels, heading the ball away with distance whenever Köln plumped the ball in high. Of course, “it’s only a friendly” and we shall have to wait to see how we get on against Sunderland next week: the long ball is mother’s milk to Martin O’Neill and he will surely be looking to pump in big diagonals and crosses to his forwards.
If Arsenal are better defensively* the players have put the credit on work done by new assistant manager and Arsenal legend, Steve Bould.* Apparently he has them all working on shape and other details* which is a bit exciting*, for those of us who enjoy that part of the game.*
Defensive work aside, surely Arsenal’s first goal was one that Bouldy had a hand in. Arsenal won the corner and Cathorla floated the ball expertly to Mertesacker at the near post who flicked on to Vermaelen at the back post and the Belgian nodded home easily. I never saw Arsenal play in Bould’s era but from what I’ve read in interviews with Tony Adams, this was one of their many tricks for scoring off corners. Set pieces have been a bit of a sore subject for Arsenal lately, so it’s really nice to see them working on plays on the training ground.
And speaking of Cathorla, he started in a midfield trio with Chamberlain and Coquelin and looked absolutely imperious*: spreading the ball to either side with Podolski and Theo running down the wings, cutting through the Köln defense with excellent close control and taking the corners with an accuracy that Arsenal have sorely missed. It’s just one 45 minute display, but he really looks like a player that we can get excited about*.
The second goal was a penalty expertly taken by Podolski. Cathorla slipped Chamberlain in to the box and on the second foul the Arsenal man went down and the ref had no choice but to award the penalty. Podolski stepped up and cool as you like, wrong footed the keeper.
Podolski wasn’t finished there. A few minutes later Poldi played Gibbs in wide with a great ball from deep in midfield. As Gibbs controlled, he juked his man one time to get to the byline and when he pulled the ball back to the penalty spot it was none other than Podolski who was on hand to finish ruthlessly. After the match, Arsene praised Poldi for his finishing:
He is a great finisher, we see that in training. He’s lethal and doesn’t need many chances to score.
If Poldi was “lethal” yesterday, Giroud was perhaps a bit… erm, harmless. Either that or the Koln keeper, Horn, had the game of his life. The big Frenchman had several shots saved by Horn as everyone kept trying to tee him up so he could open his account. Giroud’s best bit of play came when Walcott played in a great ball from the right, Giroud created a little space between himself and the defender and gently nodded the ball down to Cathorla. The Spaniard blasted the ball but Horn made a great kick-save to deny the goal. That bit of play epitomized the Frenchman. More than just a pretty face he’s got great touch and will be winning Arsenal a lot of headers should we choose to play him up front.
The first half ended 3-0 to the Arsenal and left many with a buzz. How could you not be excited*? Arsenal had just unveiled three new signings, all of whom showed flashes of genius. And not only that, but Arsenal hadn’t even let in a single wonder-goal.
The second half, Arsene rung in the changes, replacing everyone except Poldi. Szczesny, Diaby, Koscielny, Santos, Song, Djourou, Arshavin, Jenkinson, Gervinho, and Gnabry all came on to start the second half. And if the first half was all rainbows and unicorns, the second half was a bit like poi.
The home side nearly scored that wonder goal that Arsenal supporters are used to seeing. Koln’s second half sub, the aptly named Lehmann, hit an unstoppable shot from some 40 yards that beat Szczesny with it’s wicked swerve before rocketing off the underside of the bar. It was just the wake-up call that the match needed and Arsenaal sprang to life.
Gervinho was lively all through the second half, galloping down the left and consistently beating his man with both pace and trickery. And right after Lehmann’s rocket missed, Arsenal set Gervinho free down that left again, he beat his man again, and with no real support and oceans of time, took a snap shot and beat the keeper on the short side.
Four-nil to the Arsenal and probably should have been five when a lively Arshavin burst through the Koln midfield, held off three defenders and played Gervinho in only to have the Ivorian take a touch on the ball that made it easy for the keeper to save.
In the 70th minute, Robin van Persie came on for Podolski and some media outlets are claiming that the Arsenal fans booed the Dutch striker. 101 Great Goals has fan footage that says otherwise so I would take that claim with a huge grain of salt. Robin played but really did very little. Hardly a surprise, but what raised my eyebrows was the fact that he wore the captain’s armband.
Many people wouldn’t have thought that Robin would even play yesterday, much less captain the team, after this summer. Yet there he was and there was the Boss after the match claiming that Arsenal want to keep him and that if they do keep him, he will probably remain captain. Wenger further explained that the plan all along was to keep “the best player in England” and to build around him with Podolski, Giroud, and Cathorla. Which, if true, is an incredible bit of business by the club. To think that Arsenal have managed to stave off inquiries from Juventus, Man U and Man City and if that was the plan all along, well, that’s just incredible.
At this point, no one can say what’s going to happen between now and the close of the transfer window. Even Arsene Wenger admits that in many ways it’s out of his hands. But if yesterday’s match was a delicious Cathorla and Podolski filled cake, then the prospect that Arsenal might, just might, have defended themselves against bulllies like the agents, the players, and the sheikhigarchy is certainly the icing on top.
There could be a move today or maybe the end of the week, but with the international matches on Wednesday there is little chance of a player making the move before Saturday. It’s not impossible, just difficult.
So, what if Arsenal start the season with Arshavin and van Persie? What if they play on Saturday against Sunderland? What if they stay with the club all season?
I can’t say for sure what will happen but I can say that I am excited for the new season and proud of the way the club has handled everything this summer Apparently, you can teach an old dog some new tricks.
*Yep, I know it’s a pre-season friendly against a second-tier German team.