Arsenal must hold nerve against Leicester as Premier League kicks off
Arsenal begin their season in unusual fashion, kicking off a new campaign on a Friday night for the first time ever. What's not unusual is that they appear to be a little less ready than some fans might like.
This is not about lack of preparation, however. It's more about injuries than lack of spending.
While much of the focus is on Alexis Sanchez, who is set to miss a couple of weeks with an abdominal strain, the Chilean striker only returned to the club last week after an extended summer break and was unlikely to start against Leicester anyway. The bigger concern are key players Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, who have gone through the full preseason despite dealing with ankle and calf problems, respectively.
Club captain Per Mertesacker's participation is not assured after he picked up a head injury in the Community Shield win against Chelsea. His central defensive colleague Laurent Koscielny is suspended for the opening two games, and Gabriel is also injured. Meanwhile, Shkodran Mustafi will have to be assessed, as he (like Sanchez) arrived back late after reaching the final of the Confederations Cup.
It gives Arsene Wenger more to consider than he might like for the first game of the season, but if there's a right time to have a minor injury crisis, it's while the squad is as big as it is now. It's well known that Arsenal want (and need) to move some players on, but even with that many individuals sidelined, Wenger can still call upon Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal and new signing Sead Kolasinac to make up his back three.
He has Alexandre Lacazette, Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck to choose from for his front three, while Mohamed Elneny's performance in the win over Chelsea proved he can gel nicely with the increasingly influential Granit Xhaka in midfield.
So while the overall situation is not ideal, the Gunners are hardly down to bare bones. The win over Chelsea at Wembley -- even with the caveat that Antonio Conte's side, like Arsenal, were missing some key players -- showcased the depth of Wenger's squad. Perhaps their biggest challenge for Friday night, then, will involve overcoming the opening-day jitters that have become a staple of the club over the past few years.
In the past seven seasons, Wenger has presided over just one win on opening day: a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace in 2014. Even that match proved to be a fraught encounter, however, as many were quick to label Ramsey offside when he netted the winner in injury time. There have also been three draws and three defeats, two of which took place in the past two seasons against West Ham (2015) and Liverpool (2016). The data suggests that opening day presents a psychological barrier for Wenger's side, and Leicester will undoubtedly seek to exploit that fragility on Friday.
Winning the FA Cup in May silenced some of Wenger's most vocal critics, but the triumph still failed to win over all naysayers. Even a meaningless preseason defeat to Chelsea was enough to spark some fairly vociferous -- if pointless -- criticism, and it feels like it won't take much to scratch the surface at Arsenal this season. Their margin for error is smaller than ever before.
However, Wenger's side have shown an ability to deal with pressure. The Gunners begin the season in a positive frame of mind after the Community Shield win, and they have the talent and quality to take three points against Leicester on their home turf. Whether they can hold their nerve as those Friday night lights shine over the Emirates remains the big question.
Andrew Mangan is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @arseblog.