Sunday's Community Shield against champions Chelsea gives Arsenal an early opportunity to test their title credentials, writes Nick Wright...
It may only be pre-season, but there have been plenty of positives for Arsenal ahead of the new campaign. After a productive tour of Asia, Arsene Wenger’s men returned to the familiar surroundings of north London and provided plenty of cheer for supporters at the Emirates Cup.
A total of 14 goals in four games speaks of a side playing with confidence, and the 6-0 demolition of Lyon on Saturday showed the Gunners at their free-flowing best despite the absence of the talismanic Alexis Sanchez, who is yet to return to London following his Copa America heroics with Chile.
The likes of Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud appear refreshed from a summer’s rest, new signing Petr Cech has looked typically assured in goal, and there have been signs of real promise from the club’s next wave of stars – notably academy graduate Alex Iwobi and recently-recruited French teenager Jeff Reine-Adelaide.
Optimism abounds at the Emirates, and Arsene Wenger sees encouraging signs at both ends of the pitch. "Our defensive stability was very good," he said after the 1-0 win over Wolfsburg. "It smells like we can score goals. That is something that is very positive. Around the box our passing looks incisive, dangerous, creative."
The next test comes at Wembley, and who better to dampen the mood than Jose Mourinho? The Community Shield is hardly a coveted trophy, but it presents Arsenal with an opportunity to make a statement of intent ahead of the Premier League season, and meetings between Wenger and Mourinho are rarely dull.
Indeed, the Blues boss – who notoriously described his adversary as a "specialist in failure" last season – has already stoked the fire. "If you add up the amounts clubs have spent in the last three or four years I think maybe you will find a surprise," Mourinho told national newspapers this week as he aimed a jibe at Arsenal’s transfer spending.
"We don’t listen too much to what people have to say," responded a deadpan Wenger. The tensions between the pair are more apparent than ever, and the goalless draw between the sides at the Emirates in April stretched Wenger’s winless run against his old foe to 13 games.
And while the Community Shield serves as more of an appetiser than a main course, it is not without its significance. "Of course it is not a friendly match," said Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini ahead of last year’s fixture. "It is an important game against an important team."
Arsenal’s 3-0 victory last year owed a lot to injury-hit City’s makeshift line-up on the day, but Chelsea – like Arsenal – should be close to full strength on Sunday, which makes it an intriguing dress rehearsal for the season proper.
Arsenal’s victory over depleted City didn’t spark the kind of Premier League challenge they might have hoped for, but Chelsea’s last two victories in the competition in 2005 and 2009 have been followed by title wins. The Community Shield may count for little in terms of silverware, but it can provide a platform for success.
"When you prepare a team you want a good pre-season," Wenger said ahead of Sunday’s game. "It doesn’t give you a guarantee that you start strong in the competition but it’s still better for the confidence and the belief of the group. We have a good opportunity to show that we have improved.”
Sunday’s encounter will provide a yardstick for the improvement Wenger speaks of. This summer has been one of stability at the Emirates Stadium, with the £10m Cech – who will come up against his former team-mates at Wembley – the only major new arrival to date.
Wenger has confirmed he is open to adding more new faces to his squad before the end of the transfer window, but he is relaxed after watching his side take 44 points from a possible 54 in the second half of last season.
It's a fantastic squad with good players, a fantastic goalkeeper. They are more than ready to be a title contender.
There remain question marks in defensive midfield and the addition of an elite striker would certainly boost their chances, but the Gunners have quality and competition for places in most areas of their squad and, crucially, they are not beset by injuries.
"It's a fantastic squad with good players, a fantastic goalkeeper," was Mourinho’s assessment. "They are more than ready to be a title contender."
But Arsenal haven’t scored in 482 minutes against Chelsea, and haven’t beaten them in eight attempts. Recent encounters between the teams have brought a sense of deja-vu for the Gunners and served to highlight their shortcomings against top opposition, but a positive result at Wembley could instil valuable belief.
Indeed, the last Community Shield meeting between the sides in 2005 certainly provided an accurate forecast of what was to follow. In what would become a reoccurring theme, Arsenal were undone by Didier Drogba that day in a 2-1 defeat at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The Ivorian scored once in each half, while Arsenal’s goalscorer was a certain Cesc Fabregas, who has since swapped clubs with Cech, Chelsea’s goalkeeper that day. Chelsea went on to win their first nine Premier League games of the season, while the Gunners were beaten twice in their opening four – eventually finishing 24 points short of first place.
Ten years later, Arsenal can show how far they have come. Landing the first punch on the defending champions would be a fitting way to launch a title challenge.