THE OPENING QUOTE
“What makes me positive is the fact that we maintained our technical stability from last season. We managed to maintain too what was our strength last year - a positive spirit and a good togetherness. Also we could strengthen our squad with players like Debuchy, Chambers and [Alexis] Sanchez. All that together makes me confident.” – Arsène Wenger.
Opening day is upon us. Optimism should be always liberated at this time of the season and Arsenal fans must have more freedom than most.
The FA Cup lifted a burden off the club’s back last May and a raft of new acquisitions - especially the marquee signing of Alexis - should do likewise to their spirit. Last weekend, champions Manchester City were summarily dispatched in the Community Shield - not crucial but another nudge in the right direction.
|Arsenal: Gnabry (knee), Ospina (thigh), Walcott (knee), Ryo (hamstring
Crystal Palace: Delaney (doubt - knock), Mariappa (doubt - rib), Thomas (doubt - knock), Williams (thigh)
Last season’s opener was pretty horrible of course. Aston Villa’s 3-1 win created a cloud under which those early games were played out. However Arsenal recovered to beat Fenerbache in the Champions League qualifier and, crucially, squeeze past Tottenham at the start of September.
Arsenal return to Istanbul this season with a trip to Besiktas on Tuesday. The return is the following Wednesday. Wenger always calls these preliminary ties for Europe’s top table as the most important of the season. The meat in the Turkey sandwich is a trip to Everton, genuine title aspirants and the site of a 3-0 defeat last season that felt, at the time, similar to that early Villa reverse.
At his pre-match press conference, Wenger pointed out that, though fourth, Arsenal finished a mere seven points adrift of Manchester City. He argues there are two important improvements to be made if that gap is to be bridged.
“I think the number of goals scored is a target and, of course, performances in the big games are vital,” said Wenger. “We failed to collect points in the big games away from home, somewhere we are usually traditionally strong.”
Olivier Giroud was top scorer last season and, if selected, the Frenchman will reach 100 games on Saturday. His record is 70 starts, 29 substitute appearances, 40 goals, 22 assists.
“He's an efficient player now and has improved since he joined us. He's as well not completely there yet physically this season but, on Sunday [in the Community Shield], he has shown even when he's not ready that he can turn up and deliver something special. What I like in his stats is the number of assists. That's something that is very important for a team who plays the kind of football we play.”
Wenger was effusive in his praise of the Palace revival under Tony Pulis last term. After being appointed in late November the Welshman hauled them up from deep in the relegation zone to finish 11th with a record of P28 W12 D5 L11. Something that makes his departure on Thursday even more peculiar.
“I think Tony Pulis made a miracle last year,” said Wenger. “He took over in a very bad condition - basically a desperate situation - and he turned it around.
“If you look at the number of points they collected, they were the team of the second part of the season. They had some fantastic comebacks, like against Liverpool where they created a shock in the Premier League. They came from 3-0 down to 3-3 so they had an attitude where they never gave up.
“The surprise factor will not be there this time but you do not only make surprise results when you have quality. Going forward, they were very quick on the break against us with [Jason] Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie. They have Marouane Chamakh too of course and, on the break, they always serve their striker well.”
The Arsenal manager claimed that this has been the “calmest” pre-season in recent years. Certainly we can all allow ourselves a little optimism right now. There is still a little warmth coming from the embers of that FA Cup victory.
The World Cup will weaken all the major clubs in early season and, in many ways, the race will not start until well after the transfer window has shut.
However Arsenal seem ready to start the season in the manner they have spent the summer - on the front foot.
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