Sunday, August 06, 2017

Arsenal Win Community Shield to Launch New Season

Arsenal came back from a goal down in the second half to beat Chelsea 1-1 on penalties (4-1) for the third time on the bounce with a trophy on the line and the third time in the past four competitive matches. Some like to discount the value of the curtain raiser for the season, but besides allowing their goalkeeper to take the second penalty shot, which he appeared to mistake for a goal kick, this was a game with teeth and midseason intensity. Arsenal started the brighter of the two sides in the first half, but Chelsea grew into the game as halftime approached. The best opportunity of the half fell to new Arsenal signing Lacazette, who sent a curling shot onto the post. Chelsea sniffed a couple of half chances of their own, but Cech was solid as was the supporting cast.

That all changed right after halftime, as a poor clearance from the otherwise excellent Granit Xhaka fell to Cahill, who headed it goalward. Holding lost his man and Moses stormed forward, taking an excellent touch before rifling the ball past the outstretched Cech. It would have been sweet respite for the man who saw red in the FA Cup Final 10 weeks ago, ultimately costing Chelsea the double, but for the equalizer that came 36 minutes later. Arsenal kept their cool, though, and seemed to be finding another gear, though without the finished product. Giroud and Walcott replaced Lacazette and Iwobi and Walcott had a couple of chances, following a howling cannonball from Xhaka that Courtois just tipped wide. In the 82nd minute, the pressure paid off, as Xhaka sent in a perfect dipping free kick that Kolasinac deftly headed across goal with panache.

The game ultimately went to penalties, in the new ABBA format and, after Cahill coolly slashed in the opener, Walcott and Monreal responded with successful kicks. Then, in one of the more bizarre moments you are likely to see, Chelsea’s keeper Courtois took to the spot, sending his effort high over the bar. Morata was up next and kicked wide of the far post, with Cech looking to have his shot covered even if it was on target. Ox stepped up and confidently slotted his chance in before Giroud sent Courtois the wrong way and sealed the penalty shootout 4-1, and the Community Shield for the third time in the past four seasons.

Three thoughts on the game:

1.    Wembley’s Been Good to Wenger
Arsenal have won the FA Cup three of the past four seasons and followed that up with the Community Shield each August. All told, it was their ninth straight victory at Wembley and the sixth “trophy” in just over four seasons. Sure, we would like to win the league or get past the first ask in the Champions League knockout stage, but for fans like me that went nine long years without a solitary trophy, things could certainly be worse … take, for example, being a Spurs fan. Of course, Chelsea have bigger fish to fry this season and have two league crowns over that span and Champions League and Europa League titles if we add another season to the equation. But this must be satisfying for Wenger, who has beaten Conti in three of the four competitive matches they’ve played – though that one loss would have pushed Arsenal over the hump and into the Champions League this season (ceteris paribus).

Arsenal dominated stretches of the game and seem to have Chelsea’s number at the moment, but for two sloppily conceded goals in the last two competitive matches. Arsenal ultimately bossed possession to the tune of 54 percent and outshot Chelsea 11 to 7, with 5 corners to the Blues 4. They carved out more chances throughout the match and will likely feel aggrieved to have allowed the opener, after the poor clearance from Xhaka. However, as has become a pattern since the disastrous stretch last winter/early spring, Arsenal have shown a renewed vigor and will to win that they could very well carry into an important season for them.

In fact, for the first time in a long time, Arsenal seem to have a bloated squad that actually needs culling. Up front, they have Lacazette, Giroud, Welbeck, Sanchez and even Walcott to choose from as the center of attack, Ox, Walcott, Sanchez and Iwobi to play on the wings, Ramsey, Xhaka, Elneny, Ox, Coquelin and, maybe someday, Cazorla to choose from in the midfield, and in their new three-man back, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Mustafi, Holding, Gabriel, Monreal and Kolasinac can all deputize, with two of Monreal, Kolasinac and Bellerin playing wingback (and Ox or Gabriel other options on the corners). Who can go of this gang? Well, rumours abound that one of Welbeck or Giroud might head out of town (I would choose the former), that Walcott could be a casualty if the right bidder came knocking, that Wilshere might be best served by leaving (even as he wants to kick on) and that Gibbs, Debuchy, Perez and a few others are clearly surplus to requirements.

On top of all these names, some youngsters might just be blooded in the Europa League and Cups, including the exciting Reiss Nelson, developing Akpom and two who impressed in limited work last season – Maitland-Niles and Reine-Adelaide. And there is still the possibility that Arsenal can come to an agreement with Monaco on the exciting winger Thomas Lemar.

2.    Players Ratings
Lacazette was solid without being exceptional, though he was probably starved of the service one expects Ozil, Ramsey and Sanchez (fingers crossed) will provide once the season begins. All three were missing for different reasons, with Sanchez still lacking fitness, Ozil out with a knock to his ankle he suffered in training and Ramsey hobbled by a thigh injury, though it is not thought to be terribly serious (even as we’ve heard that one before). In their absence, others shined, including the rejuvenated Xhaka, who has bedded in after a rough start to life in England. His range of passing was on display throughout, providing the free kick that assisted the equalizer. Ox also looked solid, though he lost the ball a few times in dangerous positions that could have easily led to dangerous counters. The backline did its job ably, with Holding again displaying his potential as a future leader and the others largely keeping Chelsea at bay.

The equalizing goal was scored by one of the more astute signings of a summer of transfer excess that would leave a reborn Louis XIV envious. While PSG try to figure out how to recoup the half a billion pounds that Neymar will ultimately cost them and Man City sweat over coming good with their humongous summer outlay, Sead Kolasinac was gotten on the cheap earlier this summer. And by cheap, I mean free! The Bosnian defender has the perfect physique for the rigors of the League and appears to have an eye for goal as well. He was excellent throughout his 60 plus minutes on the pitch and looks like a great signing that can play in the back three or on the left wing. Bellerin looked back near full speed, but still lacks the sharpness of the first half of last season and must improve if he is to stave off Ox for the right wingback spot.

On the Chelsea side, it is hard to make a fair assessment of Morata in such a short stint on the pitch, but the moment and tension did seem to get to him, as he fumbled the ball a few times before the poor penalty miss. Rudiger seemed fine and the rest of Chelsea’s back line were solid throughout, but for the moment they abandoned the far post at the most inopportune of moments. Pedro made some storming runs before being sent off (maybe rather harshly) and Fabergas continues to impress with his range of passes. Moses scored for the first time in 27 games and Willian looked lively, if a little off his best. Finally, as one would expect, Konte was solid, if quiet, missing some of the outlets he is used to relying on on the counter. One clear concern for Conte moving forward, is what to do without Hazard on the pitch and how long it will take Morata to adapt to his new home.

3.  Don’t Read Too Much into this One
While I would love to prognosticate the beginning of an epic campaign for the Gunners and another collapse on the backend of a title for Chelsea, one should not take too many augurs from this match, as both sides were depleted of some of their biggest stars. For Arsenal, Koscielny, Sanchez, Ozil, Mustafi and Ramsey were all missing and Mertesacker had to leave after a, seemingly inadvertent, elbow to the face from Cahill in the 30th minute. On the losing side, Hazard, Bakayoko and, of course, Diego Costa were all missing, though the former has played his last game with the Champions. The other two new signings, Rudiger and Morata did come on later in the game, though neither acquitted themselves particularly well, as mentioned above.

Potentially informative is the fact only Manchester United have repeated as Champions in the Premier League era and most recent champions have fared rather poorly the following season, including Chelsea just a couple of seasons ago. With the increased competition of the league, one does wonder if they have the tools necessary to repeat, along with the requisite will and hunger. Morata is an exceptional player, but Diego Costa’s fiery side arguably helped them over the line both times they won the title and he might be sorely missed in the end. They might also rue the loss of the experience and winning mentality now playing in the Championship with Aston Villa.

For Arsenal, we won’t know much until we get to the money end of the season, as false hopes have been extinguished far too often over the past decade plus, including two seasons ago, when they really should have beaten Cinderella Leicester to the crown. The run of form since last April is certainly something to build on, along with a further taste of trophy glory that should leave the youngsters and more seasoned stars hungry for more. It also appears that Sanchez has resigned himself to staying this season, particularly given that PSG’s outlay on Neymar seems to end any foreign bidders worthy of consideration (Bayern balked at his salary demands of around 400,000 pounds a week earlier in the summer window). Of course, we shouldn’t count out Barcelona showing up at our doorstep with a mouthwatering bid, but Wenger seems set on retaining his best player. City might just be a year away for Sanchez, but with the World Cup on the horizon, one expects the diminutive Chilean who can to give it his best throughout the season. We’re only five days away from its commencement. Here we go again!

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