The beginning of Arsenal's inexorable march to the top. Perhaps.
Arsenal 1-0 Chelsea (C Shield)
Arsenal 1-0 Wolfsburg (F)
Arsenal 6-0 Lyon (F)
Everton 1-3 Arsenal (F)
Singapore XI 0-4 Arsenal (F)
Astra 2-1 West Ham (EL)
West Ham 1-2 W Bremen (F)
West Ham 2-2 Astra (EL)
Norwich 0-1 West Ham (F)
Charlton 0-0 West Ham (F)
Could this be Arsenal’s year? Could there have been a more frequently asked question before any of the last 10 seasons or so? The Gunners have often been built up – and have sometimes built themselves up – to vertiginous heights since their last title win in 2004 and the results have, at least, been consistent. But the pre-season narrative has it that there is a different feel about things this time around and those who flock to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday might be rather more justified in their red-tinted optimism than before.
It helps, in the short term, that West Ham are their first visitors. Eleven goals have flown past their custodians in their last three visits to N7 and they have taken just one point from their last seven. Nobody knows quite what to expect from Slaven Bilic and his team this season; entertainment on the touchline should be taken as a given but, although Dimitri Payet is undoubtedly a fine signing, depth of quality appears a sticking point and the most likely scenario is that West Ham cause stronger sides a flutter or two on their day but stick to maddening inconsistency.
That might have rung a few alarm bells at Arsenal in the past but the ship has sailed in serene water this summer. The very early signs are that the presence of Petr Cech in goal – even if he had little to do against his former club last week – is having the desired calming effect on those in front of him. The defensive balance seems sensible enough, and Arsenal were happy to let Chelsea have the majority of the possession after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first-half winner at Wembley. They aren't quite playing in the mould of the Invincibles but there does seem an appetite to get towards goal more quickly and directly, in the manner of that team, and this is a side that seems to have a little more variety and versatility than some of its predecessors.
It's always wise to hold off on the talk where Arsenal are concerned, though, and see whether they are capable of living up to the hype. It seems important that they set off at a strong pace ahead of their visit to Chelsea on September 19 if they are to build up the capital for a genuine title tilt, and Sunday’s game is probably the easiest of their first eight on paper.
Get through it unhindered and the feeling of goodwill around the team – an important factor given the way in which the atmosphere at the Emirates is given to lurch into despair when things are not going well – will grow, and Arsenal’s momentum might just turn into something special.
One thing that hasn’t changed at Arsenal is the medical team’s workload and Jack Wilshere will be keeping them honest once more with a hairline ankle fracture. Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky are both on what Arsene Wenger terms a “progressive recovery”, which essentially means neither of them are fit yet either. The main interest lies in Alexis Sanchez, who has returned to training but missed pre-season after Chile’s Copa America campaign. He couldn’t be pitched straight in, could he? “We have to decide that at the end of the week, but I don’t think he will be involved,” says Wenger.
There would ordinarily be concerns about West Ham’s ability to recover from a Thursday night engagement in Romania, but Bilic wasn't bothered by the prospect of Europa League defeat to Astra Giurgiu and it showed when an ‘experimental’ side bowed out with a whimper. You can only assume that he plans to give things a proper go at Arsenal but he will do so without Carl Jenkinson, back on loan at West Ham again, who is unavailable to face his parent club under the terms of his loan. Enner Valencia is out for the next three months, which damages Bilic’s prospects of carrying the fight. Andy Carroll’s rehabilitation continues apace – the striker has begun training with the under-21s but will be nowhere near ready for this one.
Key battle: Oxlade-Chamberlain vs Cresswell
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s season got off to a flying start with that superb winner against Chelsea and, if he can keep this up, his incisiveness will play a big part in Wenger’s tweaked approach. Operating on the right of the front three, the 21-year-old will always pose a threat both outside and inside, with the only real question mark coming through his sometimes casual use of the ball in inappropriate areas.
Facing him and – perhaps just as importantly – the overlapping right-back Hector Bellerin, will be Aaron Cresswell. The West Ham left-back was superb last season, an ever-present in the league and wonderfully consistent after joining from Ipswich. The Hammers appear to have staved off any interest in the 25-year-old – Manchester City were linked earlier in the summer – and he is a character Bilic will be reliant on as he remoulds his squad. Cresswell is in for a busy afternoon against the pace and power of Arsenal’s right side, but his positioning is canny and his use of the ball should get his team out of a spot or two.
Arsenal 3-0 W Ham (PL, Mar 15)
W Ham 1-2 Arsenal (PL, Dec 14)
Arsenal 3-1 W Ham (PL, Apr 14)
W Ham 1-3 Arsenal (PL, Dec 13)
Arsenal 5-1 W Ham (PL, Jan 13)
Wenger and Bilic were squaring up this time last year, when Arsenal edged past a ballsy Besiktas to make it into the Champions League group stage. There is plenty of respect between the two, and Bilic revealed this week that Wenger was complimentary towards his ability to ensure the Turkish side didn't capitulate over two legs. Expect any touchline exchanges to be respectful, then, although the fourth official can look forward to a busy afternoon – neither boss is shy of putting his team’s case forwards.
Facts and figures
- Dimitri Payet created the most chances in the top five European leagues in 2014/15 (135).
- Arsenal have been shown more opening-day red cards than any other Premier League side (6).
- Theo Walcott has scored more top-flight goals against the Hammers than vs any other opponent (5).
More FFT Stats Zone facts
Arsenal keep the good vibes coming against a team whose identity may take some time to become apparent. A repeat of March's 3-0 home win for the Gunners.
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