Stoke City 0-0 Arsenal: A Newfound Defensive Solidity

You know, it's going to get indescribably stupid in the mainstream football press over the next week or so. Frankly, even the one outlet I dimly half-respect (The Guardian) is going to put the words "Robin van Persie" on repeat like that awful "No. 9" song over and over until some enterprising lad in an Arsenal shirt breaches an opponent net.

Context and thinking analysis, as ever, will be in shorter supply than rainfall in the American Midwest.

Let's be honest with ourselves - "Stoke Away" has taken on a fearsome patina in the last few seasons, an annual horror show that typically results in three points for the troglodytes and some Arsenal player sprawled on the Britannia Stadium turf, the victim of some crude real-life take on the game Operation. Inevitably, some eminently preventable goal is conceded on a set piece or a moment of defensive ineptitude. Frustratingly, chances to win the game are spurned as that odious hobbit Tony Pulis gleefully cackles on the sideline.

None of those things happened on Sunday morning. Actually, hardly anything happened on Sunday morning until the late game kicked off at Anfield. However, there were plenty of positives to go along with the bitter pill of two further points dropped.

I don't make a habit of lying to my audience, so allow me to tell you just how fearful I was when I saw that Vito Mannone was forced to deputize in goal with the injuries to Wojceich Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski. That one magical afternoon against Fulham competed in my memory with the bizarre kung-fu kick attempt at a save in that game last season (the opposition that day escapes me). The rest of the starting lineup was more promising, as last week's back four were complemented by Mikael Arteta and the surprisingly still-intact Abou Diaby in the middle. Lukas Podolski, Santi Cazorla and Gervinho were tucked in behind Olivier Giroud up top.

Make no mistake - goals will come from this lot sooner or later. It wasn't to be on the day, but given how little they have played together (the upper management of the club bears some responsibility here given our non-existent pre-season fixture list), it's a bit early to write off the entire enterprise. Meanwhile, whether it's the presence of Steve Bould or the increasing understanding between the personnel in the back, Arsenal repelled the intermittent Stoke attacks with a minimum of fuss. I don't know about you, but I didn't think I'd live to see the day.

Speaking of, the fact that Stoke had the ball in our net seven minutes in does not mean that we got off lucky or that the solidity wasn't there. Jonathan Walters was miles offside as he ran onto Peter Crouch's cushioned header, meaning he could have replicated Pele's triple-pirouette around the keeper and it still would have amounted to same result - a goal kick in the opposite direction.

That was to be the only serious attempt on Mannone's goal as far as a shot in anger goes, but the Italian did find himself under pressure throughout the match by the usual assortment of long balls, crosses, and caber tosses from the sideline. There were a few nervous moments and his footwork was iffy on a few of them (goalkeeping nitpicking at its finest, there), but he dealt with the bombardment well enough and never looked seriously like conceding.

It had to have helped him that the center-halves especially were so composed in front of him. Per Mertesacker played his part in winning a few aerial battles, but was more impressive with his positioning and reading of the game. His solid performance was eclipsed by his partner though, as Thomas Vermaelen was absolutely everywhere - breaking up attacks, bombing forward at times, and generally running the show as a true captain should.

A minute after the offside incident, Arsenal found themselves shouting for a penalty kick up the other end. It was Podolski who had gotten himself into shooting position, but the Stoke defender bravely flung himself into the path of the shot to deflect it away. While it did look to strike Andy Wilkinson's arm, we'd have been incensed if a spot-kick were called on us for the same thing. It hardly looked intentional, to be fair.

The Gunners grabbed the match by the throat from that point on, dominating possession to an almost embarrassing extent (though not quite the footballing lesson Everton handed to Aston Villa the previous day). Podolski had a good run thwarted by a professional foul from Robert Huth, though Cazorla wasted the free kick - sadly a trend on the day. The Spaniard had a subsequent better effort palmed away to safety by Asmir Begovic.

That was the sum total of incidents in the first half - though if possible, even less happened in the second. Wilkinson ran through the back of TV5, and was lucky to escape with a booking. Crouch's elbow caught Mertesacker in the side of the head, though the BFG did make somewhat of a meal of it. More along the lines of playing football, Giroud's audacious attempt at a bicycle kick didn't quite come off, though it was nice to see him make the attempt.

The much-discussed lack of cutting edge in our side was indeed on show, but much of the fault came from the wide positions. Podolski had a bit of a quiet game, and was duly withdrawn for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain with 20 minutes to go. Likewise, Theo Walcott came on for Gervinho - who once again was bereft of end product. Given that the absence of The Striker Who Must Not Be Named means that everyone else has to contribute offensively, I just don't see how the Ivorian is good enough for this squad...unless running into cul-de-sacs somehow becomes a scoring play, that is.

Diaby was also fairly putrid on the day, though it was more harmlessly so given that Stoke rarely ventured through the middle of the park. His positioning was spotty and his passing range was exactly what you'd expect from a player with a few layers of rust on him. The fact that Cazorla was the one to come off with 10 minutes left on the clock instead of the Frenchman is the latest in Arsene Wenger's mystifying substitution patterns.

Aaron Ramsey was the man to come on there, and Stoke supporters displayed their usual tact and diplomacy by booing him. There's nothing I have to add to that, really. They booed a guy for a crime of having his leg broken. You stay classy, Stoke-on-Trent.

Karma was sadly not in attendance at the Britannia, as the Welshman did have a decent shot flash by the wrong side of the far post. Imagine the reaction if that had gone in, eh? He also made a great run to break the offside trap and get into space, but Giroud had other ideas. Normally, I'd praise him for his daring in ignoring Ramsey's run to take a ferocious lash on goal from fully 40 yards out. Had it dipped under the crossbar instead of striking the woodwork, there'd be 4 paragraphs here outlining his brilliance. It didn't though, and it potentially cost us 2 points.

Still, I keep coming back to the fact that we kept a clean sheet, at Stoke, with Mannone in goal and no Laurent Koscielny. Further, we were rarely in trouble. That has to count for something, as does the fact that our apparently-fragile defense has now gone 180 minutes without conceding. Look, with the talent that this team has on the offensive side of the ball, goals will come. If they happen to arrive without a corresponding lack of focus defensively, then the rest of the league just might have more to fear from us than the journos would have you believe in the 3.8 seconds they have spent mulling over the meaning of this result before furiously jabbing on the red button marked "RVP" like a pack of Pavlov's mutts.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Mannone 7, Gibbs 7, Mertesacker 7, Vermaelen 8, Jenkinson 7, Podolski 6 (Walcott 6), Arteta 7, Diaby 5, Cazorla 7 (Ramsey N/A), Gervinho 6 (Walcott 6), Giroud 6.

Man of the Match: Coming away from the Britannia with a clean sheet is a big deal these days, and for me the captain was a huge part of the reason why. Thomas Vermaelen for me, all day. 

Preview by Numbers: Stoke City v. Arsenal

Britannia Stadium, Stoke-on-Trent
Sunday, August 26
8:30 a.m. EDT, 1:30 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Lee Mason
    • Assistants: Simon Long and Ron Ganfield
    • 4th Official: Howard Webb
  • This Match, Last Year: Stoke City 1 - 1 Arsenal
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 50 Arsenal wins, 23 Stoke wins, 22 draws
  • Arsenal's League Form: L-D-D-D-W // D
  • Stoke's League Form: L-D-D-L-D // D
"Ahhhh, I locked my keys in the car!"
Photo: Guardian.
As Fulham and Swansea both ran up the score against Norwich and QPR respectively on Saturday morning, we joked at the pub that the title race between those two sides looked like it was going to be interesting. In fact, both sides play each other in the final fixture of the season, on May 19, in Wales. That's on pace to be a title decider.

The moral of that anecdote is that there is almost nothing you can glean about the final Premier League table after just the first round of fixtures. Arsenal is currently 10th after their 0-0 draw with Sunderland; West Bromwich Albion was 3rd (before Chelsea played an extra game,) Tottenham Hotspur is 14th, Manchester United is 16th, and Liverpool is 18th. After one round of fixtures last year, Bolton was first and Wolves were fourth; both are now in the Championship. There's still a lot of football to be played.

A goalless draw against Sunderland is obviously not the best case scenario in terms of starting the season on the right foot, but it's also no cause for panic. That said, more points dropped on Sunday would prove to be a bigger annoyance. Arsenal do not have a positive history of results at the Britannia. It sure would be nice to get three points.

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Koscielny (calf), Rosicky (Achilles), Sagna (broken leg), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (foot)

Koscielny might have been out of training with a calf
problem lately, but he's got plenty of practice making
weird faces. Photo: The N5 Blog.
Sunderland nearly broke through Arsenal's back four twice in the opening quarter of an hour last week; afterwards, the fullbacks held back as the Gunners moved forward. The lack of overlapping runs meant less offensive penetration, and ultimately, a 0-0 draw. Finding the proper balance is going to be a work in progress for Arsenal; this makes sense given the personnel flux of the front six this summer.

As for those on the comeback trail from injury, everyone available for selection last week remains available. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should be back in contention as well. Lukasz Fabianski should return to the bench in place of Vito Mannone (did you know he was there?)

Laurent Koscielny is still bothered by a calf problem and looks to miss out. To put a positive spin on the fact that the Frenchman is going to miss another start, there are worse things in the world than having Per Mertesacker's height against Stoke City. I would suspect that if Carl Jenkinson started at right back last week, he'll start there again this week.

The midfield trio will likely remain (it'll be nice to have Abou Diaby's height against Stoke, too.) Up front is another judgment call, so my predicted XI will just keep the same players as last week. I'm being cautious; the season is too young to be able to make wild decisions without any real insight.

Predicted XI: Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Arteta, Diaby, Cazorla, Gervinho, Walcott, Podolski.

Stoke Squad News

Surprise! A Stoke red card! Photo: Daily Mail.
Out: None
Doubts: Pennant (thigh)
Suspended: Whitehead (one match, two yellow cards)

Stoke have some newly available players, as they've signed constantly injured Tom Huddlestone on loan from Tottenham (at least, they hope to have that deal done by Sunday; it has been held up a bit) and have completed the visa for Geoff Cameron from Houston Dynamo. He should help in their midfield, where Dean Whitehead serves a one match ban after collecting two yellow cards against Reading at the weekend.

Robert Huth has fully recovered from his hospitalization from viral meningitis which he picked up in the United States; he played against Reading. You know, Daniel Sturridge also contracted meningitis during Chelsea's U.S. tour this summer. Should we all be afraid of contracting meningitis now?

Ex-Gunner Jermaine Pennant is a doubt with a thigh injury.

Current Form

I don't know what to put here, so here's
a drawing of Gunnersaurus for you to print
out and color in yourselves.
It's really hard to write about form when the season is only a week old. With such a drastic swing of players in and out, it's hard to compare Arsenal's 0-0 draw last week with the three straight draws they picked up in late April to early May of this calendar year. How many parallels can you make between last week's match and the 3-3 draw against Norwich in May, or even the 1-1 at Stoke a week before that?

As for Stoke, they drew 1-1 last week against Reading after conceding a penalty just before second half injury time, which canceled out new signing Michael Kightly's first goal for the club. Stoke have not won since April 7 against Wolves, a stretch that has now reached seven games. The Potters are also unbeaten in their last seven at home (three wins and four draws,) though they have drawn the last three, the first of which was this fixture in April.

Match Facts

While Arsenal have no problems beating Stoke at the Emirates, the same cannot be said about their trips to the Britannia. Since Stoke earned promotion to the Premier League, Arsenal have won just once on their travels to the Potteries.

Aaron Ramsey is routinely booed at the Britannia, because
of that time his leg got in the way. Stay classy, Stoke.
Photo: Daily Mail.
Arsenal lost their first trip to the Britannia in November of 2008 by a 2-1 score. Gael Clichy pulled a consolation goal back late in that one, but Arsenal were down 2-0 and the damage was mostly done by the time Robin van Persie was sent off for head-butting Thomas Sorensen. Their next trip was in the FA Cup in January of 2010,  which saw Arsenal concede early from a set piece, draw level at halftime, only to fall 3-1. A month later was Arsenal's only win at the Britannia, 3-1, though that was the match which saw Aaron Ramsey's leg broken by Ryan Shawcross.

In their first visit to the Britannia after the Shawcross/Ramsey incident, Arsenal was already in "we've totally stopped trying mode" in May of 2011 and Stoke won 3-1. Last year, Arsenal picked up a result in late April, taking a frustrating single point after a 1-1 draw.

In all five of these matches, Stoke scored first and on four of those occasions, that first goal came within the first 11 minutes. I distinctly remember in the Aaron Ramsey game at Nevada Smith's, a friend of mine arrived shortly after kick-off when it was 0-0, went up to the crowded bar to get his first pint, came back, looked at the screen, saw it was already 1-0, and asked "Wait, what the hell happened?" My memory is fuzzy on the specifics, but I'm pretty sure that goal came from a Rory Delap throw-in.

Arsenal won 3-1 at the Emirates against Stoke last season, in October. Peter Crouch scored in both matches for Stoke last year and now has seven career goals against the Gunners. Also, he's really weird looking, still.

I hate matches at the Britannia.

The Referee

The referee is Lancashire-based Lee Mason, who often makes shockingly bad calls when Arsenal is involved. His first match and only other match this season was Wednesday's 4-2 Chelsea win over Reading, during which Fernando Torres was arguably offside before scoring the goal that put Chelsea ahead for good.

As for his track record with Arsenal last year, he worked two victories: the 3-1 over Stoke at the Emirates in October and the 1-0 at Everton in March. As for Stoke, he worked that loss to Arsenal, a 1-0 win at Everton in December, and a 2-1 win at Blackburn in January.

Two years ago, Lee Mason allowed a very controversial offside goal for Everton at the Emirates, which gave the Toffees a 1-0 lead at halftime. Captain Cesc Fabregas argued with him in the tunnel about it, leading David Moyes to later say that Fabregas should have been sent off for his remarks. All of this involved a cat somehow, according to this picture I found (right.) Arsenal won 2-1.

In his most recent controversy, in April of last year, Mason was strongly criticized for sending off QPR's Shaun Derry in the 14th minute at Old Trafford for a professional foul, when there was minimal contact between Derry and Ashley Young, the latter of whom was in an offside position before receiving the ball. United won 2-0.

Around the League

Stoke v. Arsenal is one of two Sunday fixtures this week; it will be followed by the weekend's showcase game as Liverpool hosts Manchester City at Anfield. City had a player sent off in both of their league meetings last year, and Liverpool beat them over two legs in the League Cup semi-final. They drew 1-1 in the league meeting at Anfield last year.

That means there are eight matches to be played on Saturday. The first early match of the season sees Swansea City host West Ham at the Liberty Stadium. That's gonna get some ratings on ESPN2, for sure. Saturday's late game has Chelsea host Newcastle at the Bridge. Six matches kick-off in the 10:00 a.m. Eastern / 3:00 p.m. England time slot: United hosts Fulham at Old Trafford (another 5-0 for the Cottagers, please?), Spurs host West Brom, Villa welcomes Everton to Birmingham, Norwich hosts QPR at Carrow Road, Southampton's first home match of the season sees them host Wigan at St. Mary's, and Reading is away to Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.

All in all, not a particularly enthralling Saturday followed by two intriguing match-ups on Sunday.

The reverse of these fixtures will be played the weekend of February 2-3.

Arsenal 0-0 Sunderland: The Visitors Shut the Door

The match reports you read elsewhere today will have many common themes. There will be the usual bleatings about how we couldn't break down an inferior opponent, though of course there will be no mention of our previous defensive fragility (funny, that). There will be the those who question our new signings because they didn't score 38 goals apiece in their first match with us.

The people who write those reports will be wrong. Don't listen to them.

It was somewhat of a makeshift side, with Gervinho bizarrely installed as an ersatz center forward, Olivier Giroud settling for a place on the bench. Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott flanked the Ivorian, with Santi Cazorla playing behind. Mikael Arteta and Abou Diaby dropped deeper in midfield, while Per Mertesacker deputized for the injured Laurent Koscielny in central defense.

You'll be stunned to know that I missed the first 15 minutes, though the MTA really was at fault this time (that, and the extra block needed to get to my new viewing location - TEAM O'HANLON'S!). In my absence, both sides had chances to break the deadlock. James McClean was played clean through on goal, but his low drive was blocked by the legs of Wojceich Szczesny. Down the other end, Cazorla's long-range effort was repelled by the dive of Simon Mignolet.

The match slowly began to settle into a rhythm, with Arsenal maintaining possession while the Black Cats defended in numbers. Despite the oddity of his starting position, Gervinho was an energetic presence in the first half, and on another day he might have claimed at least one assist. A mazy run from the man with the giant cranium concluded with a fabulous cut-back into the penalty area, but Cazorla and Podolski demonstrated the need for more time to work together as they both ran into the same space. The Pole/German ended up shoveling a weak shot into Mignolet's torso, but better communication would surely have resulted in a clearer scoring chance.

Sunderland were firmly on the back foot, and more chances came for the Gunners. Theo Walcott managed to win a header off of a great cross from Cazorla, but he skied his effort over the bar. Seconds later, a rasping shot from Diaby was smartly turned around the post by the Mignolet.

The Mackems' resistance stiffened at that point, and while they never fashioned a chance of their own after McClean's early effort, they also clamped down Arsenal's attacks for the remainder of the half. That said, one run by a Sunderland player was brilliantly corralled by a lung-busting effort from Gervinho to get back to his own penalty area.

That, friends, is indicative of a serious sea change that has happened to our club (all for the better) for this upcoming campaign. I'll elaborate on that more in a bit, but a club in crisis doesn't have their center-forward killing himself to break up a play 70 yards from where you'd expect him to be.

Halftime came and went, and while Arsenal began the second half with as much of the ball as they had in the first stanza, the energy levels just weren't there. Cazorla continued to pull the strings in midfield, but there was a focal point missing to our attacks. Sunderland weren't really ever in trouble as the Gunners probed at the edge of the penalty area. Gervinho faded somewhat, and Walcott was only ever on the periphery.

However, the young winger did draw a foul to give Podolski a chance from a set piece. The resulting shot had some pace on it, and Mignolet was surely relieved to see it go inches over the crossbar. That was to be his final contribution, as Giroud made his Arsenal debut in place of the German. Aaron Ramsey soon followed, with Diaby withdrawn before he could sustain another 193 injuries.

Still Arsenal struggled to break down the visitors, so Arsene Wenger made his third substitution very early by his standards. Strangely, it was Andrei Arshavin coming on in place of Walcott. Given his tenuous position at the club, I don't know if I'd have brought him on, frankly. Even Andre Santos out of position on the wing may have been a better option.

Giroud was the man of the moment though, and he arguably should have won the game for Arsenal on two occasions. First, he volleyed a Carl Jenkinson cross over the bar (and fair play to the kid, I barely noticed him today...I consider that to be a win). That was probably a tougher one to convert, but the subsequent chance was a more glaring miss. More great work from Cazorla sprung the big Frenchman, leaving him all alone on Mignolet with the goal gaping. Sadly, his composure abandoned him, and the shot was skewed well wide.

Much of the steam went out of the home side after that miss, and the remaining ten minutes or so fizzled out with little in the way of attacking threat on the Sunderland goal.

Still, as I alluded to before, there is little worry from this corner of Goonerdom regarding this upcoming season. Both in O'Hanlon's and in the Blind Pig for the post-match to-do, there was plenty of chatter around the idea that this wasn't a bad result, and that there's just a different feeling around Arsenal these days. You know what? They're right.

Yes, Giroud's miss was pretty bad. Yes, a home draw against Sunderland isn't the greatest result in the world. But, would you trade places with Liverpool right now? With Spurs?

The fact of the matter is that Arsenal played reasonably well, but the visitors executed their game plan well and Mignolet made a few decent saves. What probably won't get much play in today's match reports is that Arsenal were outstanding defensively. Mertesacker was especially impressive in breaking up the few attacks the Black Cats mustered, with Thomas Vermaelen often so high up he almost resembled a central midfielder. You know, like the guy we just pawned off on Barcelona for a ludicrously-high transfer fee (yet more brilliant business from our manager this off-season - my hat's off to him). Jenkinson was OK as mentioned, though Kieran Gibbs did struggle a bit on both sides of the ball. Perhaps the door may be open for Santos to start the next match.

So, no worries today, Arsenal friends. We have a long way to go, and unlike last season where the opening draw felt like a brief staving off of the inevitable, this feels more like we're revving our engines for better things to come.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Szczesny 7, Gibbs 6, Vermaelen 7, Mertesacker 7, Jenkinson 7, Podolski 7, Arteta 7, Diaby 7 (Ramsey 6), Cazorla 8, Walcott 6 (Arshavin 5), Gervinho 7 (Giroud 6)

Man of the Match: You know what the great thing is about this season? I mean, the really, really, really great thing? We get to watch Santi Cazorla play football ALL YEAR. I, for one, can't wait.

Preview by Numbers: Arsenal v. Sunderland

Emirates Stadium, London
Saturday, August 18
10:00 a.m. EDT, 3:00 p.m. BST
  • Match Officials
    • Referee: Chris Foy
    • Assistants: Simon Beck and Stephen Child
    • 4th Official: Trevor Kettle
  • This Match, Last Year: Arsenal 2 - 1 Sunderland
  • All-Time in All Competitions: 54 Arsenal wins, 50 Sunderland wins, 38 draws
  • Arsenal's End of 2011/12 Form: W-L-D-D-D-W
  • Sunderland's End of 2011/12 Form: L-D-D-D-L-L
Let's blow some stuff up this year... or something...
Photo: Wikipedia.
Sure has been a quiet summer, hasn't it?

Three new signings to be excited about, one departure that's going to take some time to get over, and by all accounts, more work to be done. Even with that aforementioned departure, I'm more excited for this season than I have been about others in the recent past.

We can continue debating about that work to be done until the cows come home, about Theo's contract, about the reports that Barcelona want Alex Song, about buying more midfield cover or another striker or blah blah blah. I won't waste your time with that here; this is a match preview, not a state of the union address.

That means this post is dedicated to discussing only the 90 minutes Arsenal will play against Sunderland tomorrow. The vibes around this club at the start of this season are significantly more positive than they were a year ago, all things considered. It's crucial for the club to start 2012/13 on the right foot. Sunderland at home is a good way to get the ball rolling.

So, let's get the first three of hopefully many many points tomorrow!

Arsenal Squad News

Out: Rosicky (Achilles), Sagna (broken leg), Frimpong (knee), Wilshere (he might have actually disappeared, I'm not sure anymore)
Doubts: Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Koscielny (international break-itis), Cazorla (jet lag), Arteta (knock)

I'm sorry, is Santi Cazorla shorter than Arshavin?
He's five foot threeeee, we've got Cazorla. Fuck Van Persieeeee.
Photo: Arsenal, via Facebook.
The injury list above is a bit wonky, so bear with me. Since there was this annoying international break for friendlies just three days before the season opener, there are a lot of players who have "knocks" that kept them out of playing for their national team, yet they may all likely be available again, magically healed, by tomorrow. In addition, for all we know, everyone who went off to foreign lands to play meaningless games may still come back broken after the posting of this preview. So, I'm doing the best with what I have, also assuming Arsenal will be playing the same formation.

We do know that Mikel Arteta was held out of the Cologne friendly with a knock he picked up in training. Also, there's the fact that Santi Cazorla's friendly was played in Puerto Rico (at least he scored a goal,) and Arsene Wenger does not like to select players who might be suffering from jet lag.

As for the players we know are injured: Tomas Rosicky had Achilles surgery after the Euros and will be out until October, it's September, at best, for Bacary Sagna after breaking his leg against Norwich in May, Emmanuel Frimpong is still a couple of months away, and now that he's not on Twitter anymore, I can't even be sure if Jack Wilshere is still a person. I'm starting to fear that he was a figment of my imagination that entire time.

So, what will the squad look like tomorrow? Here are my best guesses: I don't see the starting XI being very different from the Cologne friendly, with the following exceptions:
  1. Wojciech Szczesny in goal, obviously.
  2. I can see Francis Coquelin shifted in at right back, instead of Nico Yennaris or Carl Jenkinson. This is probably the toughest call in the line-up, because none of these players are at the level of Bacary Sagna, but you can't make a major signing to cover a player who will only be out for another month or so.
  3. Laurent Koscielny starting in place of Mertesacker. Vermaelen and Gibbs should remain.
  4. Alex Song, still an Arsenal player at the time I'm writing this, starts in midfield (Coquelin started there Sunday.)
  5. Arteta and Cazorla are listed as doubts, but both could likely still start. If they don't, your options here would include Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and/or Abou Diaby. I don't think Aaron Ramsey returned to Arsenal training soon enough after the Olympics to warrant inclusion.
  6. Front three unchanged, now that Robin's gone. Podolski, Walcott, Giroud.
Watch that be not even close, now.

Dartboard Predicted Arsenal XI: Szczesny, Coquelin, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Song, Arteta, Cazorla, Podolski, Walcott, Giroud.

Sunderland Squad News

Out: Brown (knee), Vaughan (hernia), Bardsley (ankle)
Doubts: Sessegnon (ankle)

Stephane Sessegnon is a key player in Sunderland's attack.
Arsenal might be very lucky to avoid facing him, if he's unable
to return from an ankle injury. Photo: Sky Sports.
The Steve Bruce era at Sunderland was marked by a heavy churn of players. Bruce signed 30 players, either to full deals or loans in, during his two and a half years at the Stadium of Light. This summer, the Black Cats have made two signings, Carlos Cuellar from Villa and Louis Saha, both on a free (the latter having been released by Spurs this summer.) Meanwhile, they no longer have The Greatest Striker Who Ever Lived, plus Asamoah Gyan has officially moved on to Al-Ain. The Black Cats are trying to sign Steven Fletcher from Wolves, but the Midlands club want a bajillion pounds for him.

Matters are made a bit worse this week by the fact that Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland's biggest playmaking threat, could be short with an ankle injury. Even if he is ready (some reports state he returned to training this week,) he has not featured at all in the pre-season and could be held out as a result.

Chronically injured Wes Brown is on his way back from a knee injury, but will be well short of featuring tomorrow. David Vaughan had a hernia operation and has not yet returned to training. Phil Bardsley picked up an ankle injury earlier in the pre-season, which recently required surgery.

Sunderland play a 4-3-3 formation that becomes a 4-5-1 without the ball. The key for them will be closing down Arsenal in midfield; if the Gunners' midfield trio are allowed to pass the ball around with ease, it could be a long day for the visitors. In addition, even if Sessegnon is available, he's not 100% and Sunderland are so light on strikers, their attack will likely be anemic, even with the Saha deal completed yesterday. Remember, Saha is a guy that was excess to requirements at Tottenham, a club who still got rid of a number of forwards this summer.

Last Year's Form

This picture isn't from last year, but it could be.
Photo: Arsenal Action.
Last season... oh boy, last season... a dreadful start, a difficult middle, and a tumultuous ending, with two fantastic runs of form sandwiched in between. Just like they drew it up, right?

Arsenal completed the month of August on the wrong side of a 48-2 scoreline at Manchester United (or, something like that. Maybe it was 38 or 58, my mind kind of blanked out the specifics.) The close of the transfer window brought about an air of desperation and five new signings. The squad still struggled and sat 15th in the table in early October. Then, they went unbeaten in eight league games to climb to fourth. Then, all of the fullbacks got hurt, and Arsenal plummeted to as low as seventh on February 1st. At this point, Tottenham remembered who they were, got thrashed 5-2 at the Emirates at the end of the month, Arsenal won seven straight in the league, and it looked like third would be easy. And then, it wasn't so easy, but Spurs did such a good job of falling apart that Arsenal finished third... difficultly, with a tip of the cap to the super awesome ball catching skills of Marton Fulop. Ultimately, from the point they hit seventh place after a draw in Bolton, Arsenal lost just twice in the league in their final 15 matches, and that stat looks even weirder when you consider that those losses were to QPR and Wigan.

As for their other trophy ambitions last year, their Carling Cup campaign was halted by a particularly strong Manchester City line-up in the quarterfinals, their FA Cup campaign was halted in Sunderland, and the Champions League campaign saw them dig a hole too deep to crawl out of against A.C. Milan in the Round of 16.

Let's talk a bit about Sunderland, then. The Black Cats finished 13th, nine points clear of the drop zone. Sunderland were in the relegation discussion through the beginning of the season (they fell to 17th on December 4,) leading to the sacking of Mrs. Doubtfire Steve Bruce as manager. In came high school science teacher look-alike Martin O'Neill and Sunderland improved, climbing as high as eighth in late March. With safety secured and exhaustion setting in, the Black Cats then failed to win over their final eight matches, drawing five and losing three.

Match Facts

"Yes, I am the greatest. Take that, Sunderland!"
Photo: Guardian.
Arsenal played Sunderland three times last year, including twice in consecutive weeks on Wearside, due to the teams meeting in the FA Cup. Arsenal won both league meetings 2-1, but lost in the domestic cup competition 2-0 in the final meeting of the three.

The first meeting between the two sides was in mid-October, just after an international break, that saw Arsenal enter the weekend in 15th place, one point ahead of 16th place Sunderland. Robin van Persie opened the scoring inside of the first 30 seconds, but his goal was canceled out by a perfect Sebastien Larsson free kick. Four minutes later, Szczesny made a fabulous diving save to keep the scoreline level. RVP netted the winner for Arsenal in the 83rd, also from a free kick.

In February at the Stadium of Light, Per Mertesacker injured his ankle on the pitch in the build-up to Sunderland's opening goal in the 70th minute, scored by James McClean. Aaron Ramsey came in for the BFG with Arsenal needing an equalizer, and the Welshman provided it in the 75th, which went off both posts and in. The winner for Arsenal came in injury time, from Thierry Henry, in his final appearance for the club. What a moment.

The following week, in the FA Cup, left back Francis Coquelin pulled his hamstring in the opening minutes, forcing on Sebastien Squillaci. Kieran Richardson opened the scoring for Sunderland in the 40th and in the 77th, Sunderland scored on the break via an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain own goal to seal a 2-0 win.

Sunderland's last win against Arsenal in North London was in the League Cup in 2002. Their last league win in North London was on May 7, 1983. Two of the last four league meetings at the Emirates between these two sides have ended 0-0.

The Referee

Who will you blame if there's a controversial call tomorrow?
Photo: BBC.
The referee is Merseyside-based Chris Foy, who is not Edinburgh-based Olympic gold medalist Chris Hoy. He's also not soccer blog KCKRS editor-in-chief Chris Toy. He's not motorcycle racer Chris Boy. He's not actor Chris Coy. He's not Twitter user with 3 followers Chris Doy. He is certainly not Palo Alto dentist Chris Joy. Nor is he Chris Moy, former member of Menudo. But, some sort of new Menudo from like five years ago, not even the one you're thinking of. He is Chris Foy. Get it right, Spurs fans.

Hoy Foy took charge of only two Arsenal matches last year, and both were draws: 0-0 at Bolton in February and 1-1 at Stoke in April. In the former, he failed to give Bolton a penalty they probably should have been given in the 87th minute. Foy also denied Arsenal a stonewall penalty in the Stoke match. So, I guess we're going to see a penalty shout go ignored in this one.

For Sunderland, Foy worked a 2-1 loss at Norwich, a 2-2 draw with Aston Villa, a 2-0 win over Swansea, a 4-0 loss at West Brom, and a 0-0 draw with Tottenham. The two losses were road matches for the Black Cats; the two draws and win came at the Stadium of Light.

Around the League

West Ham hosts Villa this weekend.
Everyone in attendance will be
wearing a scarf similar to this one.
Arsenal v. Sunderland will air on The Tim Tebow Channel ESPN here in the United States, instead of ESPN2, which normally carries Premier League coverage. It's the first time ESPN's flagship station has picked up a match since Manchester City and Manchester United squared off in a match that basically decided the title, in what one Twitter user believed was "an intrasquad scrimmage." For more idiotic reactions to that game being on ESPN, check out this post over at Deadspin.

There's no early match this year, as there wasn't last year, which means that Arsenal v. Sunderland is one of six simultaneous matches to start off the season. Elsewhere, newly promoted West Ham host Aston Villa in East London. I think the claret and blue team will win. Meanwhile, Fulham hosts Norwich City in West London and Queens Park Rangers host Swansea in West London. Wait, seriously? Are all of these games in London? They just had the Olympics...

Well, no, they aren't. Newly promoted Reading hosts Stoke at the Madejski and Liverpool is at West Brom to round out the 10:00 a.m. games. The late match sees Tottenham travel to Newcastle, in what sounds like an early season battle for Europa League positioning.

On Sunday, Chelsea travels north to face Wigan in a match that will be watched by five people, then Manchester City starts their title defense against newly promoted Southampton. Monday ends the first round of fixtures, as Manchester United faces Everton at Goodison Park in what should be an engaging encounter where Tim Howard shuts down Robin van Persie.

The reverse of this round of fixtures will be played on the weekend of February 9-10, so you can be sure the Stadium of Light pitch will be a disaster by then.

Wednesday will see Chelsea face Reading at Stamford Bridge, a match that would have been played in the third round of fixtures (September 1) but was moved up due to Chelsea's UEFA Super Cup commitment that weekend.

Arsenal Season Preview: 2012-13

Arsenal limped into the beginning of the season twelve months ago with a bedraggled squad, a ragtag outfit with barely the consistency of rice paper. We all know that Arsene Wenger eventually brought in reinforcements, though we also know what prompted this belated action. Coming off of arguably the most embarrassing and demoralizing single result in Arsenal’s history, what could have been a massively destructive season concluded in relative safety thanks to the comedy stylings of West Bromwich Albion’s reserve keeper, Martin Fulop (side note: he now plies his trade for Greek minnows Asteras Tripoli – a long way from his Sunderland days, to be sure).

If I had to sum up last season in one sentence, I would say it was a largely depressing dirge of a campaign illuminated briefly along the way by some truly shining results – 5-goal explosions against both of our main London rivals spring immediately to mind.

What, then, of this upcoming season?

Whereas last term promised grim portents of UEFA Cup football and 38 games of Armand Traore’s one-man séance of the spirits of Gus Caesar and Ian Ure, I find myself feeling a thoroughly-unusual sort of unbridled optimism this time. One can argue that club policy has undergone a serious sea change, with the low tide of inexperienced never-will-bes receding in the distance thanks to a high tide of signings ranging from competent to pulse-quickening. Sure, it grates even still that this sea change didn’t happen four or five years ago. That time can never be reclaimed though, so all that is left is to head into this season looking firmly ahead, to trophy challenges yet to come.

Speaking of which, a fearless prediction: At minimum, we will win one of the domestic cups this season.

Anyway, with all of that said, let’s take a look at where Arsenal currently stands at each position. While there may be some arrivals and departures through this particular terminal yet, I think it’s safe to assume that this is largely the Gunner Army that will take on the best of the Premier League next season…and Tottenham, as well.


Depth Chart:

1 – Wojceich Szczesny
21 – Lukasz Fabianski
24 – Vito Mannone
(Damian Martinez)

Finally, FINALLY, my man Szczesny has possession of the number 1 shirt. Manuel Almunia’s release was a welcome removal of expensive deadwood, the long-standing professional Droopy Dog now the problem of our northern neighbors Watford. Szczesny had something of a miserable summer, with his 68-minute Euro 2012 cameo against Greece yielding a horrific goal against, a red card, and a penalty conceded. Poland’s manager opted to not recall him after his suspension, a questionable personnel decision (the backup was nothing special) that deprived us of the chance to see how our young custodian would rebound from his poor performance.

My feeling? I think he’ll be fine. He’s still at an age where mistakes are made (ask last season’s runners-up about David De Gea), but his potential is clear. Put a gun to my head, and I would say that I don’t think he’ll reach the level of Iker Casillas or Gigi Buffon, but he’ll comfortably slot into the tier immediately below. He’s fearless, he loves the big occasion, and he’ll go balls-to-the-wall once he makes up his mind on a play. These are all priceless commodities in a goalkeeper, along with his obvious athletic gifts. There were a few occasions last season where he rescued precious points for us damn near single-handedly, and the hope is that he won’t be called on so often behind a more settled back line. Either way, I am eminently comfortable with him as our No. 1, and would have seen it as a waste of resources had we stumped up the cash for a Hugo Lloris or a Samir Handanovic (it’ll be a long time before I’m OK with another Samir in our squad, anyway).

For now, his compatriot Fabianski will remain as the backup and Cup keeper. I’m a bit surprised that he hasn’t moved on, as there are smaller clubs out there who would see him as a significant upgrade. As ever with our fringe players though, I imagine the frankly insane wages that most are on remains the barrier to their exit. There is no mystery to Fabianski at this stage – he’s minimally-acceptable with spasms of unadulterated incompetence. Perhaps just as surprisingly, Mannone is still around as our current third-stringer. It must be the wages again, as I cannot see how he would fail to improve, say, a recently-promoted Serie A side, despite the fact that he’s emphatically not Arsenal material. Waiting in the wings is the young Argentinean Martinez, who I admittedly do not know much about other than some vague rumblings of decent performances for our reserve and youth teams.  

Grade: A-     It’d be nice to have the unsettled Fabianski and Mannone moved on and replaced with an experienced backup, but given how our No. 1 position has been so emphatically in flux the last few seasons, it’s reassuring to have the matter settled with a satisfactory starter heading into a new season.


Depth Chart:

28 – Kieran Gibbs
11 – Andre Santos

Ostensibly, Gibbs will be the starter with Santos ready to step in during times of injury or poor form. Frankly, this is an important season for the young Englishman. There have been certain spells where his talent has shone through, and let us not forget the miracle block at the death that rescued the West Brom result (and thus, our Champions League place). Correspondingly, there have been other spells of constant injury and positional ineptitude. For me, there are two questions that Gibbs has to answer this time out. First, can you stay reasonably healthy over 38-plus Europe games? Second, will you be one who Steve Bould can bring out something better in? The tools are there, but he’ll surely find himself on the fringes unless both of those questions are responded to in the affirmative…especially with a full Brazilian international hoping to claim that spot in the starting XI.

That brings me to my next point. Did you know that Santos has 22 caps for Brazil? I have to be honest with you and say that I was left gobsmacked by that bit of trivia. If you had bet me $20 and given me an over/under of 5, I would have given you 2-1 on the under. He’s a decent enough player on his day and a definite threat going forward – ask Chelsea about that last bit. But, 22 caps? Andre Santos?

Don’t get me wrong. I think Santos is a worthy and suitable competitor for Gibbs.  He certainly is a Premiership-level left back. But, he is defensively suspect and worse, flits his way through games at times. Just like Gibbs, Santos has questions of his own to answer. Can you stay in proper cardio fitness for 38-plus Europe games? Can you give us enough on offense to offset the inevitable catastrophes on the other side of the ball? Related, can you at least give opposing right wingers enough to think about so that they don’t bomb forward incessantly?

Last point – perhaps it’s something of the traditionalist in me, but I never entirely trust a defender who wears a striker’s number. We all know how the last one turned out, eh?

Grade: B    Both of our serious options here can be classified as slightly above average, but both have enough unanswered questions to not be completely trustworthy over the long haul until proven otherwise.


Depth Chart:

6 – Laurent Koscielny
5 – Thomas Vermaelen
4 – Per Mertesacker
20 – Johan Djourou
35 – Kyle Bartley
18 – Sebastien Squillaci

Yes, that is in order. TV5 is a brilliant defender on his day but his consistency failed him last season. Naturally, the general malaise surrounding Arsenal’s backline is much of the root cause there. Still, individual errors from the Belgian cost us dearly at times, and thus he’s been eclipsed by the almost-metronomic Koscielny. I would go so far as to say that Laurent Blanc’s gravest mistake at Euro 2012 was his baffling preference for the lumbering Philippe Mexes over our guy. Sure, when Koscielny does err, it tends to go down as “Koscielny (og)”. But, the bottom line is that the Frenchman rebounded from a rocky first season to become one of the finest center-halves in the division. Not a bad leap up from Ligue 2’s Lorient, I’d say.

Should Vermaelen falter at any point next season, or should be pressed into emergency-LB duty again, the Big Fucking German will be there to step into the heart of defense. Rumors of his glacial running pace were largely confirmed, but he is positionally sound and benefits from vast experience with one of the world’s preeminent national sides. Given a fully-fit squad, I do think he’s the odd man out at present. But, his presence should ensure that the two starters remain on top of their game, and it does give us an option for the proverbial cold Wednesday night in Stoke.

Djourou, on the other hand, is an interesting case. The last two seasons have proven him to be something of a human randomizer – his ceiling is somewhere in between our top two, while his floor is about 36 paragraphs below Squillaci. Clearly, that is not a level of consistency commiserate with a side challenging for honors. Should he give us something close to his ceiling 8 times out of 10, then you can argue that there isn’t a better fourth-choice CB in the division. Should he not, then you could argue that there isn’t a worse one…especially given Arsenal’s typical injury record.

Bartley’s emergence just might make the Swiss man expendable in case of the latter. Now 21, the young Englishman has graduated from loan spells with Sheffield United and Rangers to the first-team squad. This means three things to me. One, the boss believes he has improved from the scared kid who turned out for us in the Olympiacos game two seasons ago. Second, the boss isn’t sure what Djourou is going to give him either. Third, it hopefully means that he believes that he will find a buyer for Squillaci. I’ve mentioned before how he was a good buy at the time, but now his only role is to be a living reminder how even an experienced international from a club like Sevilla can quickly deteriorate into Pascal Cygan’s less-talented cousin.

Grade: B    This is an incomplete grade, pending some kind of evidence around Bould’s effect on team defense. The 49 goals conceded by Arsenal last season is desperately poor for a side with pretensions of glory, and seriously belies the talent available. I’ve come around to the idea that previous failings were far more attributable to coaching than to personnel, and I sincerely hope I’m proven right this season.


Depth Chart:

3 – Bacary Sagna (injured)
25 – Carl Jenkinson
(Nico Yennaris)

This chart looks frighteningly bereft of depth when you factor in a fully-fit Sagna. Consider that Sagna’s sickening leg break at the end of last season will see him out of action until the end of August at minimum (based on the last available information on the club website), and it becomes a full-on horror show. The fact of the matter is that Jenkinson is massively out of his depth at this level. Look, it’s a great story that he’s a life-long Gooner, and there certainly is enough in there to say that maybe he could be something after a few seasons out on loan.

Now? You have to be kidding me.

I do sympathize with the boss in the sense that finding someone better than Jenkinson who will be willing to deputize for Sagna upon his return is not easy. Still, it is a worrying state of affairs to know that the young Welshman will be our starting right back for the near future.  There’s part of me that hopes that Yennaris is more ready than we would normally think, but it’s surely too soon for him at this stage. Yennaris did just sign a new contract and is certainly a fine prospect for years to come. I keep coming back though to my nightmare scenario from last season’s preview, which unfortunately came true in the Manchester Massacre. Picture a crucial match away to United, or City, or Chelsea, or our white-clad neighbors. Do you really want to stake our season on Carl Jenkinson’s ability to handle the likes of Sergio Aguero, Wayne Rooney or Eden Hazard?

If that doesn’t keep you up at night, true-red Gooners, it bloody well should.

Grade: F (improving to C- when Sagna returns)     This is unquestionably the one gaping hole we have in our squad. End of.


Depth Chart:

8 – Mikael Arteta
19 – Jack Wilshere (injured)
17 – Alex Song
7 – Tomas Rosicky
16 – Aaron Ramsey
2 – Abou Diaby
22 – Francis Coquelin
26 – Emmanuel Frimpong
(Henri Lansbury)

 Point of clarification: Here, I mean the further two midfielders back in our usual 4-2-3-1. I am aware that we may change tactically based on some of our new additions, but in the meantime I am going to assume we’re playing the same formation as last season.

Anyway, we all know that Wilshere is permacrocked until the end of time, but I include him for the sake of completion. I imagine that this will be similar to the Rosicky’s situation from a few years back when he missed almost two full years with the sampler assortment of injuries. Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to make any kind of impact until at least January or so, is all I’m saying.

Despite his absence, we don’t have a shortage of players to fill these two positions. Arteta, of course, was the best possible recompense for that that disgraceful afternoon in Manchester. Calm, assured on the ball, rarely in the wrong place, rarely makes the wrong pass…he was emphatically our best player last season, behind a certain wantaway Dutch striker. He is equally-adept at playing in the hole behind the striker or further back in midfield, but I assume he will largely occupy the latter slot now that we have some new attacking options in the fold.

Typically, one would prefer to pair a Makelele-style destroyer next to Arteta in the center of the park, and Song is the closest thing we have to it. I don't know if we'll ever know whether his more adventurous tendencies are down to something personal or the boss preaching a suicidally-attacking style, but at the end of the day it does hurt us from time to time. Sure, Song's new-found knack for defense-splitting passes has been an unexpected boon, but I'm not sure if it nets us more goals than his bombing runs forward seem to cost us. If you believe the rumors, Barcelona are interested in signing him. Truth be told, if they offered 15-20M, I'd bite their hands off for it. Despite his humble beginnings, he's developed into a very good player - but if they buy him, I think Barcelona will find that he's more on the Alex Hleb side of things as opposed to a Cesc Fabregas,

As for Rosicky, a pedestrian first half of the season was offset by a wholly unexpected rejuvenation in the new year. All of a sudden, he became one of the focal points of our midfield - he harried opposing midfielders, pressed effectively, passed well, and even popped up with an important goal or two. For a moment there, he looked exactly like the player we thought we were getting from Borussia Dortmund in the first place. Can he keep it up, though? I think as time goes by, he will be an asset that we have to use a bit more judiciously. He is no longer, I believe, a guy we can play 40 times a season. If Arsene picks his spots though, he's exactly the kind of player who can make a difference against weaker Champions League opposition, or lower-end Premiership opponents.

When talking about using assets judiciously, that brings to mind exactly what Arsene did not do with Ramsey last season. It's a bit painful for me to read the stick that this poor kid gets from many corners of Goonerdom, considering the horrifying injury he suffered combined with how many minutes Arsene asked him to play last term. I agree with those who would say there weren't many other options, but that was once again one of the many failings from the manager to ensure that there was enough of a competitive squad to go around last season. I would hope that given his exertions last season and his being roped into the doomed Team Great Britain Olympic adventure, that we don't see much of the young Welshman for the first few weeks of the season. Let him rest a bit, and then he'll be suitable competition for Song and Rosicky.

Moving on, Diaby is still on our squad for some reason. I don't care what anyone says, he'll make perhaps four appearances, and be subbed off in two of them due to injury. This is one of Wenger's more annoying blind spots, as the guy has never shown that he is anything other than Ledley King in the right color shirt.

Coquelin and Frimpong will likely be consigned to cup games and emergency injury replacement. Given how far down the chart they are, I'm not sure many other sides in the Premier League have options this promising as their 7th and 8th choices. Coquelin can also play RB in a pinch, and given the godawful state of affairs there, he may have to.

Grade: A   Even assuming that Wilshere and Diaby won't play much, we have an almost embarrassing amount of riches here for just two places in the starting eleven.


Depth Chart:

Santi Cazorla
14 - Theo Walcott
15 - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
27 - Gervinho
23 - Andrey Arshavin
31 - Ryo Miyaichi

Pardon me while I geek out for a second:

Santi Cazorla! Santi Cazorla! Santi Cazorla! Santi Cazorla! Santi Cazorla! Santi Cazorla! Santi Cazorla!

I have not been this excited about an Arsenal signing since...well...Sol Campbell, in all likelihood. For once, for bloody ONCE, we have a real statement-of-intent signing prior to a season. This is a guy who at 27 is in his athletic prime, and who has 45 caps for arguably the second-best international side in the history of the game (those intellectually-challenged muppets who say that this Spain side are the best have clearly forgotten that Brazil fielded teams from 1960-1980). He can play centrally or on either wing, and I assume he'll see time in all three locations over the course of the season. This is a truly world-class player who gives us attacking versatility. Despite the usual adjustment period for the Premier League, I have him pegged for 7-10 goals and 15-20 assists this season.

My depth chart has Walcott second, but only in the sense that I think the boss still sees him as ahead of AOC. At his best, Walcott's pace and signature across-the-keeper low finish are a deadly weapon in our holster. At his worst, he is so bad that it's like playing with ten men. He is another who has never been able to find the consistency required at this level, and hence is another who has obvious qualities but yet I'd still bite your hand off for 15-20M. He has never made the leap that we thought he would, and honestly I wouldn't be surprised if he finds himself lower on the totem pole by season's end.

The Ox, on the other hand, is a hugely-exciting talent. He unquestionably has better ball control than Walcott, and I think he's able to use his pace more effectively to get into scoring positions. He's still raw and there still will be schoolboy errors, but for me there's a serious argument for playing him far more often at Walcott's expense. For my money, there's a far greater upside to AOC than Walcott, and now is the time to develop it.

Gervinho, on the other hand, was sadly a tremendous disappointment last season. He came in to great fanfare as an Ivory Coast international who had done well in his previous endeavors. What we got was an indecisive liability with little pace, horrendous ball control and a non-existent aptitude for the killer pass. I often in my match reports described him as "the man where attacks go to die", and I stand by that. Should he improve this season, he'll be a fine squad player and an asset to our club. Otherwise, it's my fervent hope that he plays as little as possible this season.'s just not much to say about him. He clearly is a gifted player who is either homesick or just not willing to put in the effort for the Arsenal. Thanks for the four goals at Anfield, and I wish you luck at (insert rich Russian club here).

Miyaichi is an interesting prospect who may end up forcing his way up the food chain to somewhere just below the Ox. He scored a few goals in the cups for Bolton last term whilst on loan, and garnered 12 Premier League appearances besides. He may not be ready to make the kind of impact needed as a front-line asset for a Champions League-contending side, but he's one to watch for the future and hopefully will be blooded further in the Cups and if injuries provide the opportunity.

Grade: A- (though this would drop to the B-/C+ range without Cazorla)


Depth Chart:

10 - Robin van Persie
12 - Olivier Giroud
Lukas Podolski
29 - Marouane Chamakh
52 - Nicklas Bendtner
9 - Ju-Young Park

I only include RVP here because at this exact second, he's still an Arsenal player. I fully expect him to be wearing some other mob's shirt by the time the first ball is kicked in anger this season. That said, I thank him for everything he's done for the club, and apologize on behalf of the more ungrateful section of our fanbase who direct EFF and CEE words at him despite the fact that he is arguably the only reason we're in the Champions League this season. In the future, I wish him luck in his international endeavors, as well as his domestic ones should Juventus win the race for his signature.

Giroud, I don't know. I just don't put a lot of stock in a 25-year old who had one good season for a middling Ligue 1 side (sorry, Montpellier less won the title than PSG lost it). I truly hope to be proven wrong here, but I don't have a ton of faith that he's going to be the answer to our prayers once RVP leaves. On the other hand, with the service that he'll get here, perhaps it'll be less an issue of him needing to create something out of nothing, and more a simple requirement to finish the chances better than, say, Chamakh or Bendtner would.

Speaking of them, I assume that Bendtner will not be an Arsenal player much longer. It's clear that the boss wants him gone, and there has to be some desperate mid-major European side out there willing to take a chance on him.

Meanwhile, you can take the above paragraph for Giroud and apply it just as easily to Podolski. He is a man who has made his name largely from feasting on the San Marinos of the world internationally. Remember, his only other time at a big club was his disastrous spell with Bayern Munich. Still, I am willing to put a small amount of stock in the idea that service from our midfield will result in 10-15 goals for him this season, just from converting chances that even Francis Jeffers could put away.

(Once again, I stress that I sincerely hope I am wrong about Giroud and Podolski, and that they lay waste to the Premier League. I am just not super-hopeful at this stage.)

Ju-Young Park is still with us. Yep.

Grade: B-  (though this is an incomplete grade, and could be very wrong if our summer signings come good)

Finally, my official overall prediction for the season:  I believe we will:

  • Finish 3rd in the Premier League once again, though I'd have us as outside contenders for the title if the Manchester clubs falter in any way
  • Make the semifinals of the League Cup
  • Win the FA Cup
  • Make the quarterfinals of the Champions League
Well, that's my soothsaying, anyway. What do you lot think? Feel free to comment here or on Facebook and give us your predictions for the season ahead.