By: Tyler Outlaw - OKC_Gooner
The beginning of the season is normally a time of great anticipation and optimism. Denied our Arsenal fix during the offseason, Gooners from around the world look forward to the opening day fixture for months, wondering if this will finally be our year. However, as Arsenal supporters we have begun to grow accustomed to opening day disappointments. Going into today, we had won just one of our last six opening day fixtures, a 2-1 success home to Palace two seasons ago. Not good enough, and perhaps indicative of how unprepared we are from a personnel standpoint early in the season, every single year.
Unsurprisingly, Arsenal began their league campaign without a number of key contributors. Through injury, Euro duty, or match fitness, we were without a half-dozen of our most important players. We knew that the starting 11 would be makeshift, especially in central defense, but the lineup we started with today did little to calm the nerves of supporters who knew our unfortunate record in curtain raisers. A debut for young Rob Holding was always possible, but the selection of Coquelin and Walcott ahead of the likes of Santi Cazorla, Ox and new boy Granit Xhaka caused some to fear the worst ahead of a difficult first match against a pacy and pressing Liverpool. The lineup had a lot of work rate, but seemed to lack the technical ability and quick thinking required to punish a team that presses as hard and as often as Liverpool. I am nearly always optimistic when it comes to our club, but after seeing the teamsheet today I began to prepare myself for the worst.
I was happy to say I was completely wrong after the first 20 minutes of the match. Arsenal came out the far better team, dominating the ball, winning it back quickly, and creating in and around the 18. Aaron Ramsey, playing in behind the striker, had our two best early chances. He had a wonderful left footed toe poke which was hit right at Mignolet. Later, he found himself in behind on the righthand side, only to have Moreno sprint across from the left to block his shot. Liverpool had a couple of decent moments, specifically through Firmino and Mane, but Arsenal remained in the ascendancy.
Arsenal’s pressure would eventually create an opportunity, thanks to the bone-headed decision making of Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno. Theo Walcott was attempting to control the ball and was running away from the goal when the young Spaniard inexplicably dove in and caught Theo’s leg, getting none of the ball. Michael Oliver pointed to the spot and the only question was who would take the PK. I had hoped it would be Alexis, but had a sneaking suspicion that Walcott would get the nod. Sure enough, Theo played the seniority card and stepped up to take the spot kick. His shot was well struck, but it was too close to the keeper and Mignolet made what appeared to be a hugely important save. Walcott’s horrible 10 months continued and I spent a minute or so cursing his inclusion in the team.
Less than two minutes later, however, we would get the goal our dominance deserved. Coquelin expertly won the ball back quickly in midfield, the ball fell to Iwobi who found Walcott in acres of space on the righthand side of the box, and the Englishman slotted perfectly into the far corner. Theo redeemed himself, I ate some crow, and we found ourselves in a good spot on the opening day of the season.
Not a lot happened of any significance over the 15 minutes that followed Walcott’s goal. Calum Chambers, our old head in central defense, gave the ball away in a dangerous position that led to a good save by Cech on a Wijnaldum shot from inside the box.
As we went into first half stoppage time, it seemed like Arsenal had Liverpool right where they wanted them. Liverpool had a bit of possession, and Mane eventually found Coutinho centrally, thirty yards out. As Coutinho received the ball, he crumbled as debutant Holding arrived. It was definitely a soft free kick, one Coutinho was certainly looking for, but you cannot hold a player by the shoulders and not expect him to go down. Coutinho stepped up and struck an exquisite free kick to Cech’s right hand side, finding the top corner. And just like that, we went into halftime level with a team we had dominated for nearly all of the first half.
We came out after the break looking like a team who felt hard done by. Three minutes into the second half, we trailed. Coutinho found Mane with a wonderful flick, Mane picked out Lallana who took it off his chest and finished between Cech’s legs. What little belief we had remaining, seemed to go after Lallana’s goal. Liverpool dominated possession, and we were chasing shadows.
They would make their possession and pressure count. After what seemed like a forty pass buildup, Nathaniel Clyne beat Nacho for pace and drove the ball across goal. Coutinho arrived ahead of Holding to make it 3-1 to the visitors. Heads dropped, the Emirates fell even more silent, and Liverpool continued to dominate. Seven minutes later, Mane sprinted passed Chambers, cut inside Nacho and rifled a shot to the top corner with his left, 4-1 Liverpool. It was a tremendous solo goal, but it was certainly a head in hands moment for Arsenal players, the manager, and supporters.
Arsene would be forced to bring on Oxlade-Chamberlain and Santi to replace the injured Iwobi and Ramsey. Shortly after coming on, Ox beat two defenders and then fired past Mignolet, with the help of a slight deflection, bringing the deficit to 4-2. Xhaka would eventually replace Elneny, as Wenger rolled the dice in hopes of salvaging a draw. It looked like we might have a shot at a point after Santi picked out Calum Chambers from a free kick, making it 4-3 on 75 minutes. But it wasn’t to be, as we failed to seriously threaten the Liverpool goal, and in fact could have conceded again in the final 15 minutes.
Another opening day where we drop points, another season where we start in a hole. Liverpool are a good side, and their goals today were all top quality, but our inability to be properly prepared for the season is not only worrying, it’s getting to be intolerable. Season after season we are starting poorly because we seem to be a player or two (or 6) short. I understand that it is only one game, and that we can certainly come back from this and have a successful season. In fact, that is what I expect we will do. However, it is clear that a large percentage of our supporters are fed up with business as usual. The fact that our makeshift team was booed off at full time, on the first day of the season is indicative of the frustration Arsenal supporters are currently experiencing. In the span of two hours, many supporters went from optimistic anticipation to anticipated disappointment. This has to be worrying for everybody affiliated with our club.
Now, maybe Ozil, Koscielny, and Giroud will return next week and make a huge difference. Perhaps Santi, Xhaka, and Wilshere will gain the requisite fitness and make the contributions we expect of them this year. Maybe Mustafi, Mahrez, a striker or a combination of the three will be signed and lead us to a successful season. Any and all of these could happen, and I personally think that we will recover from this setback and have a good campaign. But it won’t change the fact that for the 6th time in 7 seasons we have dropped points on the opening day. And it won’t change the fact that we dropped points largely because we were short of options in critical positions that could have been addressed weeks, months or years ago. And it certainly won’t change the fact that the fans are beginning the season as frustrated as ever.
It is now up to the manager and the players to right the ship and start building towards a successful campaign. Their first step will be to take three points off the champions next week, away at the King Power.
Up the Arsenal!
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