Saturday, August 18, 2012

Arsenal vs. Sunderland preview

It's the beginning of a new era at Arsenal, as the last remaining player to win a trophy with the Gunners has left them to join Manchester United. Goalscoring talisman, double player of the year and inspiring captain are all fitting descriptions for Robin Van Persie's role in a tumultuous last season for Arsenal. The Dutchman will be missed, but with some exciting new signings and the possible return of Jack Wilshere, Arsenal fans have reasons to be optimistic for the new season.

Santi Cazorla is one of the best pieces of transfer business that Arsene Wenger has conducted in a long time. The talented Spaniard was easily the most important player in Malaga's qualification for the Champions League last year, and his capture is a bit of a coup for Arsenal. Cazorla is equally comfortable playing in central midfield or directly in the attacking third. His understanding with Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshire in midfield along with link-ups involving fellow new signings Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski will be a crucial element in Arsenal's season.

At the back, Wojciech SzczÄ™sny proved last season what a horrendous mistake Arsene Wenger made in persisting with Manuel Almunia and then Lukasz Fabianski for so long in goal. Szczesny will be expected to win close matches with his excellent goalkeeping. New captain Thomas Vermaelen will be the lynchpin at the back, with under-rated Laurent Koscielny his first choice partner. Per Mertesacker will provide adequate back-up. Kieran Gibbs will hope to have an injury free season. Gibbs displayed excellent form in pre-season defensively, as well as supplementing the attack with some great runs and assists. The only concern is that there is no adequate replacement at right-back if Bacary Sagna gets injured, as Carl Jenkinson has clearly demonstrated he isn't up to the standard required at the highest level.

Martin O'Neill did a tremendous job reinvigorating Sunderland after Steve Bruce's tenure at the Stadium of Light went stale. Sunderland and chairman Ellis Short in particular will harbour hopes of a top ten finish this year. Nicklas Bendtner's goals will need to be replaced, although the signing of sick note Louis Saha will placate the fans until another forward (rumoured to be Steven Fletcher) is signed.

Other than Carlos Cuellar, Sunderland will rely on the same core as last season. O'Neill's teams are not the most tactically imaginative, with strategy relying mostly on quick movement of wide players, and excellent delivery from set-pieces. Lee Cattermole and Craig Gardner will provide the graft, while Sebastian Larsson, Kieran Richardson and the rising star of the team James McClean will be expected to provide the ammunition for Saha, Frazier Campbell and Connor Wickham.

Prediction: Martin O'Neill has a pretty decent record at the Emirates, and Sunderland are bound to make life difficult for Arsenal with their hard work and organization. However, Arsenal will be keen to send out a message in the wake of Robin Van Persie' departure. With a new creative outlet in Cazorla, allied to the proven brilliance of new captain Thomas Vermaelen in defence and Mikel Arteta in midfield, Arsenal should prevail at the Emirates by at least a 2 goal margin.

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