Before the game yesterday twitter was abuzzz with Arsenal supporters expressing the sentiment that this, the first game of the season, was more exciting than Christmas morning. There were ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas poems, excited chatter, and like Christmas Eve, people couldn’t sleep, so eager they were to unwrap their new gifts. And just like Christmas morning, they dreampt that they got a Barbie Dream House and when they awoke, they leapt down the stairs to unwrap a pair of slacks and some new underwear. Useful, needed, but not too damn exciting. At least that’s what it was like for Gooners, for the South Geordies a nil-nil drawl against Arsenal is like getting a Barbie Dream House, the Barbie Car, a pony, and a Ken Doll all at once.
Martin O’Neill’s game plan has been the same in every single match he has ever managed against Arsenal – park the caravan – and Arsene Wenger selected a team designed to counter that but which failed on the final touch. To break down a 10 man defense, so the theory goes, you need dribblers: wide men who can get inside the fortress and cause the defense to lose their composure. To that end, Gervinho and Theo combined for an astonishing 27 dribbles, with Gervinho’s 20 attempts the most since Christian0 Ronaldo in 2005-2006 (via @oilysailor). Yet for all his craft, Gervinho was only able to find one pass that created a goal-scoring chance because every time he got around a defender there were three more there to block him off.
Theo, on the other side of the field did very little to warrant his rumored demands of pay rise. He has improved his close control this off season and did manage to dribble past a defender on occasion but, like Gervinho, never truly rattled the Sunderland defense. Theo is often wasted in matches like these because the opposition sit too deep for him to have a chance to run at the defense.
And up front, the shiny new present of Podolski huffed and puffed for 64 minutes but never really got going and looked a little bit out of sorts in the Arsenal offense. Getting just two shots, the same number as his replacement, Olivier Giroud.
What did work for Arsenal was the smallest present under the tree, the aptly named “Santi” Cazorla. Buzzing about the midfield with Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby giving him service, the little Spaniard put on a passing clinic and deftly flipped ball after ball in to teammates in dangerous positions. Creating seven chances all game despite having flown 8000 miles and played 90 minutes in midweek for his national side. Throughout, Cazorla looked frustrated with his teammates, expecting players like Jenkinson and Wallcot to know where the spaces were before he passed the ball there. This is something that will take time to gel, we forget that the Spaniard has only had a week to work with his new team. That, combined with heavy legs certainly means better things are to come.
Defensively, Arsenal had very little to do. Cut open twice in the first 11 minutes, Szczesny made two decent saves off two Sunderland counter attacks. But after that 11th minute, Sunderland only managed two more shots, both of which were off target. Still the back four looked organized and it’s to their credit as much as Martin O’Neill’s game plan that Sunderland drew a blank offensively in the second half. It’s also a credit to Gervinho who never once failed to track back and defend and who played defense on most corners. A refreshing change from the years past when offensive players looked on defending as beneath their status.
Like clockwork, Arsene made changes near the hour mark, bringing on Giroud for Podolski and then Ramsey for Diaby followed by Arshavin for Walcott. For many, the changes were long overdue. Walcott hadn’t done much in the second half, Diaby is always on the verge of an injury, and Podolski wasn’t able to find the space needed to have a clear shot on target.
The changes nearly paid off. Ramsey’s first touch was to drive at the Sunderland defense after a pass from Cazorla put him into space. His shot lacked the power to bother the keeper, but he had a shot none-the less. Meanwhile, Giroud’s first touch was a speculative volley off a low, curling, Jenkinson cross. Arshavin looked lively in his cameo and I have it on good authority that his family will be staying in London next year. With his versatility, he can play on either side of the field or in the middle and could be an important addition to the squad.
Arsenal had a chance to win the game in the 82nd minute that they will wish they had back. Cazorla played in a great through ball to the right of the defender, and Giroud ran a neat little circle around the left. With goal gaping and keeper frozen, Giroud toe poked it wide and right. With a sigh, the air went out of the Arsenal end of stadium only to be sucked up by the Sunderland corner where they celebrated the greatest gift of all – an away draw to The Arsenal.
But unlike Christmas, there’s a sense of more to come from this Arsenal team. They played very well for a team obviously short on fitness and cohesion and who faced an opposition with only one goal, to get a scoreless draw. There are many teams who will come to the Grove with that game plan and many will be thwarted because it takes a great deal of luck and timewasting to keep a clean sheet against Arsenal.
Be patient, Gooners, unlike Santa, Santi will deliver on more than just one day of the year.
P.S. There’s some changes afoot here at 7amkickoff. First, the blog is now part of the YES network. We are now providing them with Arsenal content in the form of my blog posts. The only change you may see to the content is new voices in the comments, maybe. Not sure yet because I haven’t seen much traffic from their site. Second, I want to remind everyone that 7amkickoff is actually a collective of writers and along with my posts you will see some articles by Grimbo (he writes when he wants!) and our Man at the Match, Chary who will be reporting on the next home game against Southampton. I would also like to welcome new addition 11 Cannons who writes and draws over at 11cannons.blogspot.com. I am excited to be collaborating with him on various projects that we will post from time to time (when he has the time basically). And finally, remember that I post a By the Numbers column on Arseblog News after every match and also when it strikes my fancy.
I want to thank all of you who read the blog and especially those who make constructive comments. You’re the reason why this blog is even at all successful. Thank you, and keep reading.