The sound of excited voices bubbles up from the crowd and names appear and burst into the air. Podolski pops like a snap shot off his left foot. Giroud lands softly like a cushioned header. Vermaelen thumps like a flying tackle. Cazorla slips through the crowd of bodies like a snake. And Arteta rattles quick, like an onomatopoeia of his passes. Suddenly the call of “what do we think of Tottenham?” croaks from a hoarse voice and the reply from thousands of Arsenal supporters is loud and decisive.
For the lucky 60,000 who will attend tomorrow’s match there will be an excitement to the crowd the likes of which I haven’s seen since… the last time I went to see Sunderland. That was the match after Andrei Arshavin had just signed for Arsenal and was maybe, just maybe, set for a surprise appearance. The pace on the walk to the stadium was quick that day and conversation lively and bright. The smell of onions from the beef-burger trucks was almost palatable. Even the gods were in good cheer and shone brightly on the emerald green field of The Grove, filling the stadium with summery light in every possible nook.
It’s like groundhog day all over again, except it’s not. With the imminent departure of Alex Song to Barcelona and Man U’s signing of vain Persie, Arsenal have spent a second consecutive summer having their best players poached by a team from Manchester and a team from Catalonia. Even the way that both players have (or will have) left Arsenal is startlingly similar. Robin van Nasri moving to Manchester under a cloud of insane demands and Alex Soler Fabregong tapped up by Barcelona’s players, coaches, management, and the bread lady in the town square. See, groundhog’s day.
Except, it’s not at all like groundhog’s day. Arsenal’s management team have done a great job getting new players on board before the wantaway players actually got away. And unlike last season’s mad rush to get players in, after the cash was available from the sales of Nasri and Fabregas, Arsene preemptively brought Podolski and Giroud in as cover for this eventuality and then sprinkled in Cazolra to add creativity to the Arsenal midfield. And there are more than just hints that Arsene is ready to replace wantaway Alex Song with the Bundesliga’s top midfield enforcer of two years ago – Nuri Sahin.
In fact, the only thing that might have a touch of groundhog’s day is that I have already mentioned groundhog’s day; much like Arsenal’s preemptive moves to replace for Robin, I am preempting that phrase. If anything happens that looks even remotely like anything that has happened in the last five years and if anyone says “groundhogs day” they should now feel foolish in so doing. Because no matter what happens over this season, the last thing that it will be is “groundhog’s day”. That phrase was officially retired when Pat Rice hung up his boots and Arsene Wenger told Song and van Persie that their ungrateful attitude was no longer welcome at The Arsenal. Tomorrow’s match is a fresh start.
Football won’t have changed much this summer. Martin O’Neil will still be a leaping gnome on the sidelines who dresses in track suits and cajoles Lee Clattermole to “get stuck in” so that Sunderland can get the ball back and lump it up field to Sessegnon or Saha. Their corner kicks will still be an exercise in grab-ass with the sole hope of getting away with a bit of holding so that they can bumble the ball over the line in a goal line scramble. And there will certainly be more than enough controversy from the whistle of Chris Foy to keep everyone talking after the game; it’s not like the League has introduced technology or “good refereeing” to the game in any meaningful way.
Arsenal’s football might have changed slightly with the new personnel but it will hardly be unrecognizable. If pre-season is any measure, the team will still play a 4-3-3 with tight little passing triangles and Arsenal probing, poking, and prodding for a goal. But yet, there’s going to be a difference: the new guys. Podolski is built like a fireplug and has a snap shot that will burn the paint off the Caravan if O’Neill decides to park it in front of goal. Meanwhile, Giroud isn’t just a bigger, better Chamakh, the Frenchman has feet and knows how to use them. And Cazorla, should he get a start, is like Arsenal’s human fly, he sees everything and I mean everything: diagonal, up, down, forward, backward, sideways, Higgs-Boson and even forward and backward in time. Ok, that last bit was an exaggeration, no one can see the Higgs-Boson, it doesn’t exist.
There are also going to be familiar characters tomorrow. Arteta might get a game and I am eager to see how he gets on with Santi Cazorla. You also shouldn’t be surprised to see Arshavin sticking around the club this season* and even if he doesn’t start tomorrow, Arsene has options between him, Gervinho, Santos, and Podolski on the left. Running like a flash of light down the right, Walcott has a late test and if he fails, Arsene will have to shuffle a bit but with the attack as full as it is, that shouldn’t be too difficult.
At the back, Szczesny is going into his first season as Arsenal’s official number one and Vermaelen in his first season as Arsenal captain. Familiar faces both, if unfamiliar roles. Baring a setback, Mertesacker’s calming presence and big German frame will fill in the acres of space next to the captain as Koz is out with a calf strain. And then there’s Gibbs at left back, the solid defender who is the mirror image of Bacary Sagna on the right. Sagna won’t start due to injury which probably means that Jenkinson will get the nod.
Who you almost certainly will not see tomorrow is Alex Song. Sometime during pre-season, Song’s britches shrunk three sizes and the no longer fit. So it looks like he is set to depart for Barcelona to find a Spaniard who can taylor him some new bench-sized shorts. I’ve heard the rumors about multiple “training ground bust-ups” between Song and the Boss and I find them incredible, literally. While I’m going to err on the side of saying that the rumors are false until proven true, I am still not picking him to play. Whether there was a row or not is irrelevant, the link to Barcelona is so strong now that I can’t see him getting on the pitch and going head to head with Lee Clattermole. That means Diaby will probably start, unless he pulls a forearm muscle drinking his morning coffee.
But the biggest change of all and the reason this season isn’t going to be anything like the last is down to Arsene Wenger and Steve Bould. The whole team is talking about Bouldy’s refreshing approach to the details of defense and while I’m not expecting a miracle tomorrow, I am expecting some changes. Changes that might not fully gel until next month but changes none-the-less. The changes might not be readily apparent from the start but rather will be set in motion tomorrow. And like a cannon aimed just slightly higher you don’t notice how different the trajectory until the ball finally drops – 38 games later.
*I may know some things.