Draw, draw, draw, defeat, win, defeat, defeat. Context aside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was the form chart for a Premier League side doomed for relegation, or your Sunday afternoon record on FIFA after a late night with a thumping headache. But it’s not.
DDDLWDD is actually Arsenal’s opening day record for the past seven seasons, which when assessed in isolation, is utterly hopeless. Within that poor string of results, you can find goalless draws against Newcastle and Sunderland, an embarrassing 2-0 defeat at home to West Ham, and last season’s calamitous 4-3 loss to Liverpool when half the squad were on holiday or injured.
Will history repeat itself again this year? Simply speaking, Arsene Wenger can’t afford it to. Despite signing a new two-year deal in the summer, sections of the fanbase are becoming more vocal in their desire for change at the top, and another disappointing start will only expose the dissatisfaction that continues to bubble beneath the surface.
Granted, European Championship and World Cup exerts can complicate matters with players returning later than usual and at different times, but surely a club of Arsenal’s stature should be ruthless enough in the transfer market and competent enough behind the scenes to ensure that those who are available can compete to the standard required come opening day. Clearly, it’s easier said than done.
With less than two weeks to go until Leicester arrive at the Emirates, the squad is in a healthier place than it was this time last year. There are doubts over Alexis and Shkodran Mustafi who were afforded extended leave following their Confederations Cup endeavours, but aside from that, most of the first team squad will have two weeks of full training under their belt after recharging in Los Angeles, Bali or wherever else their multi-million-pound contracts can afford to take them. Crucially, Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey are both fit and looked sharp throughout pre-season, while new additions Sead Kolasinac and club-record signing Alexandre Lacazette continue to settle in nicely.
However, regardless of how healthy the squad may look, there are still some love handles that need to be worked off. Mathieu Debuchy, Carl Jenkinson and Chuba Akpom are surplus to requirements and should be moved on, with Kieran Gibbs and Lucas Perez also set to leave the club after falling further down the pecking order.
That’s potentially £30million and £250,000 per week in wages to recoup that can then be allocated elsewhere. Kolasinac and Lacazette represented an encouraging start to the transfer window, but since then, a move for Thomas Lemar has stuttered, while central midfield remains a problem area despite Ramsey and Granit Xhaka flourishing towards the end of last season. There are also concerns at centre back with Per Mertesacker retiring, Laurent Koscielny ageing and Calum Chambers (rather unfairly) likely to be moved on as well.
The Gunners may lack some ‘star quality’, but moving away from transfers, it’s all about being ready for that first whistle. Correcting the errors that have been made previously and making sure that the club begin the season as they mean to go on. Manchester United are the only team to lose on the opening day and still go on to lift the title, while in the 12 seasons that United didn’t finish top, those who did won their first game ten times, drawing twice.
It’s difficult to say whether or not Arsenal will challenge for the title this season, but too often have we seen the side five or six points behind top spot with eight games gone because it takes them a month to really get going. That has to change.
With over 20,000 air miles behind them, jet lag and muddled starting elevens, it’s difficult to draw too much from the pre-season tour of China and Australia. The same goes for the Emirates Cup which is a bit more intense, but ultimately a fitness builder for the players and a pleasant weekend out for young fans who don’t get to see their heroes on a weekly basis. But as soon as you hit August, things matter. The Community Shield may not hold much significance as a piece of silverware, but your performance matters. For the players, your stamina matters, your first touch matters, your finishing matters. For Wenger, his press conferences matter, the way he sets out his team matters, who he tries to sign before deadline day matters. Every action is under scrutiny now, so it’s vital that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet.
With Stoke and Liverpool both to play (away from home) before September, Wenger and his men cannot afford another slow start. The messages coming out of the club have been mixed, with Sanchez firmly in the ‘he’s staying’ court, while uncertainty lingers over the likes of Ozil, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere. Work in the transfer market remains ponderous despite a good start and following their successful pre-season tour, the players still haven’t played together enough to find a rhythm or cohesion in their play. There’s still time to work on the training ground and facing Chelsea again at Wembley will always get the competitive juices flowing, but Premier League football is around the corner and one false start could put Arsenal out of the race before it’s even begun.