Arsenal vs Chelsea: Ahead of penultimate pre-season fixture in Dublin, here's what we learned about the Gunners in Singapore
The Singapore leg of Arsenal's participation in the pre-season International Champions Cup 2018 came to a close this weekend with a resounding 5-1 thumping of a Paris Saint-Germain team shorn of most of its biggest stars
The Singapore leg of Arsenal's participation in the pre-season International Champions Cup 2018 came to a close this weekend with a resounding 5-1 thumping of a Paris Saint-Germain team shorn of most of its biggest stars. Alexandre Lacazette bagged a brace, while captain-for-the-night Mesut Ozil and youngsters Eddie Nketiah and Rob Holding grabbed a goal apiece. For PSG, Christopher Nkunku scored a penalty to put his team on level terms early in the second half.
Forty-eight hours earlier, and after a couple of days of extracurricular events in Singapore, Arsenal took on Atletico Madrid in a fixture that ended 1-1 at Full Time. A lacklustre penalty shootout — by the Gunners, at least — saw the Spanish team triumph 3-1 (4-2 overall). Arsenal's performances were largely what you'd expect in a pre-season fixture — a bit of rustiness, the lack of a cutting edge in attack, some botched defensive maneouvres and sprinklings of genius.
The Arsenal squad is now back at London Colney, training for the penultimate pre-season fixture — a Wednesday evening ICC2018 fixture against Chelsea in Dublin — that may well feature some of the last returnees (for want of a better word) from World Cup-related leave: New recruits Stephan Lichtsteiner and Lucas Torreira, and Granit Xhaka.
And with Arsenal's first competitive fixture under Unai Emery — one of the deepest of deep-end plunges — against champions Manchester City under a fortnight away, it's a good time to look back at what we learned from the club's Southeast Asian sojourn. Bear in mind, these observations are based on a very small sample size (two friendly matches, to be precise), but useful in postulating what the 2018/19 avatar of Arsenal will look like.
Heat, Humidity and Aubameyang isn't a great combo
For a striker who marked his return to Arsenal for pre-season training — looking every bit as sharp as he did in the final lap of last season — with a hattrick against Boreham Wood FC, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a torrid time, by his own lofty standards, in Singapore. Express sprints halfway across the field and into the box ended in nothing. Shots taken from within the penalty area came to naught. Aside from an assist for Ozil in the PSG match, Aubameyang seemed to have lost some of his sharpness in the sapping heat and humidity of Singapore. Fortunately for the Gabonese striker (I refuse to use the word 'hitman' in this context), a large majority of his upcoming matches will be played in far cooler and drier climes.
Impressive youth talents
A refrain of Alan Hansen's 1995 remark about how 'you can't win anything with kids' is being heard over in the US where Manchester United completed, by all accounts, a forgettable pre-season tour that saw very few first-team regulars (either due to being on World Cup-related leave or injury), making manager Jose Mourinho go on a bilious tirade. The object of his ire? A team full of kids. In Singapore, on the other hand, Arsenal's youngsters were among the brightest sparks.
New signing Matteo Guendouzi and academy graduate Emile Smith Rowe put in performances that will doubtless earn them spots in the starting lineups of Europa League group stage and Carabao Cup fixtures... at the very least. Elsewhere, Nketiah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson were solid, if not entirely spectacular, and the latter two demonstrated glimpses of better positional awareness on and off the ball, when compared to last season. The exception was Joe Willock who barely got any minutes. To make matters better, the likes of Guendouzi and Smith Rowe appeared to be fitting in seamlessly with their new teammates, evident from the camaraderie and banter on display during the team's training sessions.
Emery will have to ensure that the potential showcased in the ICC2018 is moulded and channelised, in order to prevent a repeat of some of the other Arsenal youngsters who fell short of living up to their promise.
New tactics and a new approach
That Emery was going to bring in an energetic pressing game was known as soon as he was announced as Arsenal's head coach. That we would see signs of his designs falling into place was far from certain. Fortunately, the team seem to have grasped his ideas well enough to execute in the matches against Atletico and PSG. Rarely was an Arsenal outfielder found in the team's half when they were in possession in the opposition's half. Furthermore, the team's off-the-ball play seemed to be a lot more proactive than in the years gone by. Emery was, in fact, more often than not seen yelling instructions to players who didn't have the ball, exhorting them to move into position, drop back, venture further up the field and such-like.
Another refreshing change came in the form of the tendency of attacking players — not including Ozil and Aubameyang — to rush back and defend. A clear case in point here was the masterful manner in which Lacazette dispossessed a couple of PSG players (in Game 2) in the Arsenal half to turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye. It's critical that this attitude is maintained over the course of the season.
An attacking headache
This one's actually a headache that Emery will enjoy. With Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Lucas Perez and Alex Iwobi — not to mention the returning Danny Welbeck and the junior players like Nketiah — at his disposal, Emery has a wealth of weapons to infiltrate any defence. Over the course of the two matches, Lacazette and Aubameyang played at the tip of the attack with the other either on the flank (in the case of Aubameyang) or on the bench (in the case of Lacazette). And while the former Borussia Dortmund player's effectiveness in Singapore (discussed earlier) was at odds with Lacazette's clinical finishing displays, both players thrived in the role and caused the opposition plenty of problems.
The real challenge for Emery will be to see how to accommodate his attacking players alongside each other. The problem with playing Aubameyang on the wing is that it leaves the left-back horribly exposed. Playing Mkhitaryan, Ozil, Lacazette and Aubameyang together is therefore not feasible. If Arsenal are to stay in contention for silverware this season, Emery will have to work out his best combo quickly.
A defensive headache
This headache, unfortunately, isn't one of the good ones. Arsenal added Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos to the roster to give the defence a dose of experience and brought in Bernd Leno for some solidity in goal. Unfortunately — bear in mind that this is still early days, things don't appear to be coming together as quickly in defence as they do in attack. In Singapore, Sead Kolasinac looked sluggish and Sokratis was often caught flatfooted and indecisive, while Leno is a fair way from even appearing convincing between the sticks. Certainly, there weren't any glaring mistakes, but when the proper games begin, teams will obviously come at Arsenal much harder and capitalise on the small mistakes. This is an area that needs immediate attention.
Ozil, the leader
An embattled Ozil arrived in Singapore a few days after his incendiary statement in which he announced his desire not to pull on the German kit again. It was always going to be interesting to see which Ozil would turn up — a sulking reticent one or a defiant one out to prove his detractors wrong. Arsenal fans had to wait till the second fixture to find out because the German playmaker sat out the Atletico fixture. Nevertheless, the crowd at the National Stadium let him know how they felt about him in no uncertain terms every time his visage popped up on the big screen.
It was somewhat surprising to see Emery hand Ozil the captain's armband ahead of the second fixture (Note: Aaron Ramsey was skipper in the first game), not least because this is a player known to 'go missing' during games. After all, wasn't it his fault that Germany failed miserably in their defence of the World Cup? He strode out determinedly and got his name on the score sheet in under 15 minutes after a fine run by Aubameyang. But Ozil wasn't done. He was a livewire who popped up all over the pitch with an incisive pass here, a weighted pass there and a gently lobbed pass elsewhere. Emery may well have hit upon a winning formula here. How do you solve the problem of Ozil? Give him more responsibility. This is an experiment we'll be observing keenly.
The visual nightmare we'll suffer in a large number of away games
It looks great as a shirt under a dark blue suit. It looks even better as a toothpaste. It looks downright irresistible as a scoop of mint ice cream.
But the base colour that Arsenal and Puma have gone with for the club's third kit looks horrendous on the Gunners. Sure, there are those who will say, "Oh, but Barcelona also used that colour", but the more eagle-eyed of you will note that theirs was a different shade. Certainly, dark blue and fluorescent yellow (2016/17) and the Bret 'The Hitman' Hart classic combo of pink and black (2017/18) were colour combinations that came a little bit (you can get Arsene Wenger out of Arsenal, but you'll never get rid of Wengerisms) from out of leftfield, but they worked. This washed-out shade of green looks pretty bad from afar and much worse from up-close.
Arsenal play Chelsea in the International Champions Cup 2018 at 12.35 am IST
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