Jose’s summary of the significance of the Community Shield as somewhere between a regular pre-season game and a league match, I think was pretty accurate, but there were a few reasons yesterday why this year’s event represented a slightly more interesting (and important?) contest than usual. First of all, it served as an early indication of how we would fair against presumably our biggest rivals for the title this season, it gave Jose a chance to prolong his much publicised unbeaten run over Arsene Wenger; it was also an opportunity to show that the sale of Petr Cech to a rival was an entirely affordable act of thoughtfulness on our part, as opposed to a terrible mistake. None of these things went very well…
Overall, fan reaction to the game was extremely negative, and understandably so; in my view though I don’t think our performance was bad so much as simply marred by an overall lack of sharpness. We defended pretty well (until we began to chase the game late on), we kept a good shape and controlled the midfield for the majority of the match; I don’t think we were outrun or outfought particularly at any stage and if Ramires and Hazard had taken their relatively easy chances either side of half time, the narrative could, and probably would have been, very different.
It’s impossible to ignore some very real worries which presented themselves however, most concerning of all perhaps being the performance of Ramires. Cesar Azpilicueta, Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas were all bad also, by their standards, but you would expect all three of them to find their form before long; the problem with what we saw from Ramires is that it was what we were all, more or less, expecting. The midfield pivot of the Brazilian, alongside Nemanja Matic has never once looked good – neither provide enough creativity in midfield to trouble even average Premier League opposition, especially against sides like Arsenal, sides are free to focus on crowding out the likes of Cesc and Eden, all but blunting our attacking threat
The moment Oscar was substituted in the second half, we immediately looked better, mainly because it allowed Fabregas chance to move further back and receive the ball in space, within minutes he had played the best pass of the game to set through Hazard, who really should have scored (and probably would have done nine times out of ten). It seems clear though, Jose still doesn’t trust Oscar to start in big games; either that or he doesn’t trust Cesc to start in midfield. This makes the decision not to buy a top class defensive midfielder all the more strange; if Ramires is really our first choice defensive option then I think we might be in trouble. I don’t really see him improving much at this stage of his career.
Almost equally worrying was the performance of the two centre forwards, neither of whom in 45 minutes looked dangerous for a single moment. Loic Remy in particular looked extremely sloppy, almost lazy times, inexcusably being caught offside time after time; even when his movement was good he lacked the requisite physicality to fashion any kind of chance for himself. Falcao meanwhile looked slow and uninspired against a tight defence and was caught offside too often also. Clearly neither player performed anywhere close to as well as they can and as back up options, I still think they’re two great players to have; that doesn’t change the fact we rather desperately need Diego Costa’s hamstrings to be okay. It might be prematurely pessimistic to suggest, but I think we’ve got little chance of retaining league without the Spaniard fit for the majority.
The last big worry from the game was Arsenal themselves, who looked every bit the genuine title contenders so many are tipping them to be. Roy Keane’s quip about six-packs and selfies was amusing but they’re the real deal without doubt. Their defensive frailties are a myth, having defended very well now for the past two years, and of course Petr Cech will only make them better in that respect. Mourinho’s comment about them leaving their philosophy in the dressing room might have been meant light heartedly but really, losing in this manner to Wenger has to worry him. Now that it looks like they’re done being their own worst enemy, having eradicated all the flimsiness and predictability from their typical big game performances, they’re going to be much more serious rivals. And the more they get used to winning games in this manner, the more serious their rivalry will become.
There are still, some positive notes, upon which it would be a shame not to briefly draw. Thibaut Courtois looks in top form, saving brilliantly from Ramsey and Cazorla late on. Jose made it clear after the game that he wants (and presumably expects) two defensive signings to be made before September, which means Kurt Zouma as an makeshift full back thankfully shouldn’t become a regular occurrence. Our fans treatment of Petr Cech was a welcomed piece of class also, especially in direct comparison to the Gunner’s bizarre condemnation of Cesc – a contrast which is was nice to see much of the media pick up on. It was good to see the team’s most reliable performers (Ivanovic, Matic, Willian etc) all putting in good shifts as well. I believe much of the frustration which was apparent after the game came as a result of us being frustratingly close to where we need to be, as opposed to being frustratingly far away.
They say that good pre-seasons and good season are hardly ever linked, but there can be no doubt that all the excitement surrounding the club last summer over the arrivals of Cesc and Costa and Thibaut played a big part in our fantastic start over the first three months. Having failed to win a single pre-season game it’s impossible not to wonder if Mourinho will be tempted into starting the season the way he ended the previous one i.e. extremely (perhaps overly?) cautious. It’s equally hard not to wonder if it’s even possible to win the league playing in that manner all year, I certainly can’t remember it ever being done.
Anyway, hopefully a win at The Eithad in a fortnight will render all of this irrelevant.