As a precursor to the coming season, Arsenal’s brilliant community shield performance against Manchester City provided us with much more information about the gunners’ state of preparedness for the new season and the likely pitfalls they are likely to encounter, than it provided clues about Manchester City’s readiness to handle the challenge of attempting to win back to back premiership titles.
As a consequence, one cannot read too much into the result. For Arsenal Manager, Arsène Wenger, the game would have been very useful in helping him fine-tune his tactics for the much more arduous challenges ahead. Considering Arsenal’s poor performances against the big teams last season, the victory over a weakened but hardly threadbare City side would have provided a welcome psychological boost and enhanced belief within the Arsenal camp that they can go toe-to-toe with the strongest teams in the league and come out on top.
Perhaps the greatest value to be gained from the performance was the way it highlighted the tactical options and attacking variations that could be available to Arsenal this term. In tinkering with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation (playing something more akin to a 4-1-4-1) and giving Arteta a more restrained role just in front of the back four, Wenger allowed Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey more license to roam and completely dominate a City midfield that included Yaya Toure, Samir Nasri and new boy, Fernando. This tactical tweak was important for two reasons; firstly helping to reduce Arsenal’s susceptibility to quick counter-attacks by allowing Arteta to play deeper and not get caught up field too often, where his lack of athleticism could be more easily exploited, and second, pointing the way to how Arsenal may approach big games particularly away from home in the coming season. The compactness of the midfield, using this 4-1-4-1 formation means that one can conceivably imagine a scenario where Wenger retains the same personnel in the centre of the park and brings in Ozil on the left side of the four behind Giroud. That will ensure that the pace that was so evident with Sanchez’s rapacious coming in from the right is maintained whilst Ozil can provide the vision and penetrating passing coming off from the left flank in a similar role to that he played for Germany. The result will be that it will be much more difficult for opposing team to target him(as Chelsea and Liverpool accomplished with success last term) as his position will be less predictable and man marking him may involve pulling the fullback assigned to mark him out of position since he’s unlikely to maintain a typically wide position. At the same time, it allows Arsenal utilize his exceptional passing ability in the final third whilst not losing the energy and compactness in the middle of the park that will be provided by Wilshere and Ramsey. Of course, the efficacy of this strategy will hinge in large part in Wilshere’s ability to stay fit and get some much needed consistency into his game, but the portends in pre-season from the young Englishman have looked good. That allied with the knowledge that he is smart enough to understand that this season is pretty much make or break for him, means that I have little doubt he will rise to the occasion.
One other reason to be optimistic about Arsenal’s chances is the plethora of attacking options that will be available to the gunners when everyone is fully fit. With Walcott expected to return to the frame in early September and with the indications we got from Sanogo and Campbell in pre-season(and in the World cup in Campbell’s case) that they may be more than capable of weighing in with some good performances when called upon, the options upfront look particularly mouthwatering. That’s without even mentioning the likes of Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain who will also be chomping at the bit to get involved. A lot of commentators have made detracting noises by suggesting that Arsenal are short of fire-power upfront due to an over reliance on Giroud, but that is unlikely to be the case this term. Alexis Sanchez is more than capable of occupying a central striking berth on occasion, and I expect Wenger to experiment some more with him in that position as the season wears on. As he showed in his brief cameo playing the role in a friendly game against Monaco, he possesses extraordinary pace, excellent close control and is robust enough to weather the physical approach of premiership defenders. Against weaker opposition(at least initially), the prospects of an attack featuring Sanchez as a number 9 with Ozil behind him and the flanks occupied by a fit again Walcott and Cazorla, is very intriguing indeed. That would theoretically provide both the frightening pace of Walcott and Sanchez allied with the ability to prise teams open that Ozil and Cazorla will bring to the table. That’s not forgetting Ramsey’s ability to pop up all over the place and also weigh in with vital goals.
Of course it’s also apparent that this Arsenal team also has glaring weaknesses. Debuchy and Gibbs, whilst providing excellent options going forward and enabling the gunners to stretch opposition defences in supporting attacking moves and providing 2-v-1 opportunities also have their limitations defensively. The defence is also stretched quite thin already in terms of numbers, although one expects Wenger to address this by buying another central defender before the end of the transfer window. This means that the expectations are that the gunners’ defence may not be quite as solid as it appeared last season. This is however a weakness that the gunners could just get away with, particularly if their attacking potential is fulfilled in as compelling a manner as is expected. That is not to say that some balance should not be found between swashbuckling attacking play and a miserly defence. Of course, it should. But with the distinguishing feature of this team lying in it’s undoubted attacking potential; it would be remiss of Wenger not to attempt to squeeze out as much from this strength as possible. Even if that means letting in a few more at the other end.