Arsenal’s summer of optimism got even better today. Theo Walcott ended another long-running contract saga by penning a new 4-year deal. But surprisingly, that news was only part of the announcement which also announced that Santi Cazorla has reupped his deal. With both players entering the final year of their contracts, getting these deals done now not only helps the team down the road, but it also puts aside the hassle of trying to get something done during the year.
Walcott’s deal, rumored to be for 140,000 pounds a week, is a huge vote of confidence from Arsene Wenger for a player who hasn’t stayed healthy for the past two seasons. Even as Arsenal’s longest-tenured player, Walcott still feels to me to be a growing player, one who hasn’t approached his top level. Hopefully he makes the best out of this deal and becomes the player we now expect him to be as one of the team’s top earners. And as far as Cazorla, with many including myself expecting him to return to Spain, it comes as a nice surprise. Moving deeper into the midfield as he’s now done should help Cazorla keep his legs fresh as he ages, but still, this is yet another sign that Wenger is changing his policy on players over-30.
But as great as this summer has been for Arsenal fans, meaningful games are on the immediate horizon. Regardless of what your opinion is of the FA Community Shield, it can’t be taken lightly, especially against Jose Mourinho. Given the way the respective preseasons were set up, Arsenal seems to be taking Sunday’s match more seriously than Chelsea. With Chelsea just arriving back from the US midweek and set to play another friendly on Wednesday, they clearly aren’t at peak fitness. Arsenal, on the other hand, haven’t played since last weekend and won’t have any more friendlies before next weekend’s Premier League opener.
Arsenal’s motivation in this match should be clear. Coming off of a FA Cup win and this wonderful summer, they will want to send an early message to the title-holders that this year’s team is tougher than last. They’ll need to back up the result better than they did last year, but it must be said that a win would be a boost for the squad’s confidence. Having never beat Mourinho, Wenger clearly has reason to care, if only to partially quiet the narrative – though of course if he wins, people will say it doesn’t count. And for Petr Cech, the game is a chance to get one over his former club right off the bat.
Chelsea’s motivation is less clear. There won’t be a crisis of confidence if they lose, nor will they be any more of a title-contender if they win. However, I think they should be looking to squash any momentum Arsenal has built up. A clean-sheet and a statement goal from Eden Hazard could do just that. Add in the fact that Mourinho loves a good smirk and I suspect that while he won’t necessarily commit to his strongest side – remember that six substitutions are allowed – Mourinho would love a win.
With Theo Walcott just signing a monster deal, my guess is he’s going to start up front, especially given the setting. Normally you wouldn’t want to gamble against Chelsea, but as there are fewer consequences for a loss, Wenger should give Walcott another go up front ahead of Olivier Giroud. We already know what Giroud gives us against Chelsea, so let’s see what Walcott can do. This is the perfect place for experimentation against a top side.
Behind Walcott, I think we’ll see Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin completing the midfield. I’d be surprised if Jack Wilshere started, as I don’t think Wenger could afford to leave any of those others out. But with the six substitutions, he’ll see the field. The only alternative I could see is if he went with Mikel Arteta next to Coquelin, but given how little the two of them have played together, I wouldn’t be a fan of that alignment.
Ahead of Cech in goal, I think Wenger will go with experience across the backline, giving the nod to Mathieu Debuchy and Nacho Monreal ahead of Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs. Especially knowing Hazard will be deployed on the left, I’m thinking he’d be more comfortable with Debuchy. And at left back, it’s a coin-flip.
My prediction for the match is a low-scoring affair filled with more heavy challenges than your average early August match. I know I’ve been optimistic lately, but I never feel good about playing Chelsea. So despite the good vibes, I think Hazard will do something special to get the game’s only goal. Given the substitutions Chelsea will likely make and their comparative lack of depth – that feels strange to write – Arsenal will have their chances in the second half. Going a goal down would offer the first test of Arsenal’s mental fortitude.
If Arsenal lose, we can write it off as preseason. But a win would be nice. Regardless, I can’t wait to head to Wembley Sunday to see this shiny Arsenal team. I’m genuinely excited for the season. Follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for my thoughts from Wembley. Let’s make London red.