With another pre-season trophy in the bag, pre-season has gone well, but what have we learnt about Arsenal from the Emirates Cup weekend?
With Arsenal building on 4-0 and 3-1 victories over the Singapore Select XI and Everton with impressive 6-0 and 1-0 wins over possible Champions League opponents, there is much to feel optimistic about going forward.
Most fans were probably fairly optimistic about the season ahead after the team’s form in 2015 so far, combined with the signing of Petr Cech. So, in the spirit of ‘What’s new pussycat‘, the question is: What did we actually learn from Saturday and Sunday?
There be goals in that there squad
The fans, the media, Lord Harris, the manager and players, and even Olivier Giroud, have all at times implied that the club is trying to (or at least should be trying to) sign another striker, and one out of the top draw. Despite all the creativity in the team, Arsenal just haven’t scored enough goals in recent years compared to the respective title winners, and the need to improve is obvious.
The weekend was a timely boost and reminder. Seven goals from seven goalscorers is a good sign given the quality of the opposition, particularly considering that 22 different players saw significant game time. And this is without Sanchez or Welbeck being able to participate.
On top of this, there were positive signs when the devil of the detail is examined. Ozil appears to be making more forward runs, getting into the box and shooting more, which for a player of his technique has exciting possibilities. For all his brilliance, his goal to game ratio hasn’t been as it should be over the last two seasons, largely due to a reluctance to take the chances himself.
Another exciting development is how Walcott has started to work out how to make those fantastic late runs from the left side as well, giving us even greater flexibility. For all the limitations of his game, and the frustrations he leaves us feeling, a fit Theo does guarantee a certain amount of goals.
Lastly, even with a very disciplined performance in midfield from Ramsey against Lyon, he still created chances and scored, showing that his exploits of 2013/14 and parts of last year are here to stay.
The killer instinct is starting to come
A long overdue and welcome trait that we saw occasionally last season was an ability to stay in a game and then blow teams away in little bursts. Villa away, Newcastle, Liverpool, West Brom and Galatasary at home were all fine examples. Four goals in nine minutes against Lyon (not to mention one disallowed and another chance missed in that time), show that this team is capable of putting on the afterburners when the opposition are knocked out of their stride.
In a very different way, the performance against Wolfsburg was also impressive. The Bundesliga runners up put out a very strong side, and played like they had a point to prove. Even Nicklas Bendtner looked handy at times and was closing people down. Coming second in Germany is no mean feat, especially as they won the domestic cup and reached the Europa League quarter finals, and Wolfsburg are the kind of nightmare third pot team for the Champion’s League draw.
What was largely a second 11, bar Cech, Ozil and Monreal, struggled to dominate possession and, at times, were penned back a little. However, only once or twice did Arsenal look like conceding, and remained dangerous on the counter throughout. When we stepped up the tempo in the second half we took over, and Theo took his goal fantastically well with a well timed run and clever finish.
While Saturday against Lyon became an exercise in having fun and showing their skills, Sunday’s match was a much more serious, business-like performance, and after an initial struggle for balance, was executed very well.
The kids really are alright
Almost every year a youngster or two puts in a good showing in the Emirates Cup to get us excited about their potential for the season ahead. Last year it was Sanogo and Bellerin. Previous years have given us the emergence of Wilshere and Bendtner (ahem), snippets of Gnabry and Zelalem and the false dawns of Frimpong, Afobe and Bartley.
This year we had appearances of various impact levels from Hale End graduates Chuba Akpom, Alex Iwobi, Isaac Hayden, and the icing on the cake, the eye-catching cameo of Jeff Reine-Adelaide.
I’m a big fan of Chuba Akpom, but his desperation to impress led him to playing with his head down and not utilising his team-mates in and around the box. His pace, power and effort levels are there for all to see, and his run to create space for Theo’s winner against Wolfsburg was quality forward play. I was willing him to score, as you can tell he needs a goal against quality opposition, but as we saw last season in cameos, he can impact against a tired defence.
I suspect he’ll go on loan again when Welbeck and Sanchez are fit, as he needs to find the same calm in the first team that he has in the u21s. He’s too good for that level and the likes of the Singapore Select XI, so he needs a stepping stone to hone his all-round game.
Alex Iwobi’s progression since this time last year has been very impressive, and it showed against Lyon. The man with the famous uncle (Jay-Jay Okocha if somehow you haven’t found out!), looked raw at times with his decision making, and tired before the end, but he has a very mature style. His unusual career progression from full-back to midfielder to attacker or wide forward saw a sudden increase in his goal output last year for the u21s. His unusual journey has given him an appreciation of space that really stood out. He just seems to know where to go, even if his finishing and final ball can on occasions be a little erratic.
“I like his team attitude, his movement,” said Wenger. “We have a game based on movement and speed, and he integrates that very well. He has good power and is usually efficient – he scores goals a lot.”. The manager has already said that he won’t be loaned out this season, so he is effectively taking the squad space of Joel Campbell and Lukas Podolski combined.
Isaac Hayden is often overlooked, but after two previous league cup outings, he has shown the ability to fill in competently at central defence or defensive midfield. Finally back up and running after an injury riddled 2014/15, Hayden once again demonstrated the assets to make a place for himself in the squad. As Wenger said of him in late 2013, “I like his strengths in the duels, his capacity of concentration and I believe as well that technically he is very focused to do well. He is maybe not a creative player but everything he does is intelligent.”
His positional play and calmness under-pressure are were also in evidence, and his willingness to shoot from range, was also noted. Were it not for injuries, he definitely would have seen game time last year, and has a chance of breaking through into the squad properly this year. In the short/medium term, football away from the Emirates seems most likely after missing so much time last year, but I doubt it will be a full season, and I’m sure, as with Coquelin last year, it will have a recall clause.
“The next stage is to go somewhere that I can get game time, be in the squad a lot more and get match experience. The Championship is the league that I think I can go to and play football. I’m not even expecting to go somewhere that I’m guaranteed to play, I want to go there and show to the manager, fans and the players that I’m good enough to play.”
Jeff Reine-Adelaide has already exceeded expectations for the season. Still only 17, and having only joined the club in the summer, there was no anticipation of him getting a sniff of first team action this year, but that may be re-thought after his impact in both games.
Not just in possession of a natural athlete’s running style and pace, our man Jeff has a good first touch, quick feet and plays with his head up. On top of this he is already comfortably six foot, and has impressive upper body strength for one so young and slim. He was particularly impressive in his creation of Walcott’s goal. Drifting centrally into space, he picked the ball up in a deep position, beat a man before playing a through ball perfect in time and weight for Theo to poke him.
Once he got to the pace of the game, his decision making was exceptional. As the manager said after his substitute appearance vs Lyon on Saturday evening; “Reine-Adelaide is something special you know.”
Its early days yet, but he looked someone who could step up soon if he stays fit. Given our wealth of options in midfield, he’ll have to go some to get any regular game time, but Wenger has made it clear that he will be developing in house rather than going on loan.
Suddenly we have all the defensive options we need
After much of the last 4 or 5 years cobbling together makeshift defences from spare parts, Arsenal now have quality cover for all the defensive positions. Indeed, of the first and second choice back five’s, only Bellerin is not yet a full international, and on current progression rate, that will only be a matter of time.
It’s not just the numbers though. Crucially, we have good balance at both full-back and centre half. In Bellerin and Gibbs there are overtly offensive full-backs, with Monreal and Debuchy as more defensively solid options. Both Koscielny and Gabriel are more comfortable attacking the ball, and both Mertesacker and Chambers are better at sweeping up in a slightly less aggressive role.
Such is the squad depth that Wojciech Szczesny and Carl Jenkinson, both comfortably good enough to be cover for a top Champion’s League team, have been allowed to go on loan.
The Ox looks ready to break free
After a dynamic and forceful display against Lyon, capped with an excellently taken counter-attacking goal, Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up the pace immediately after coming on against Wolfsburg. With almost his first touch he burned past the very capable Ricardo Rodriguez to create a chance for Ramsey, and although still a little inconsistent in possession, his game-breaking ability was on display on both days. The poor Lyon left back was left chasing shadows for much of the game, and even Rodriguez for Wolfsburg struggled when The Ox was introduced.
The key, as ever is fitness, but his succession of lung-bursting runs in both matches gives cause for optimism. Fingers crossed!
Despite an embarassment of riches, there are still concerns
Part of being a fan is to have irrational pessimism. It is always irrational, however, even when things look rosy. One question a lot of fans will be asking is ‘What happens if Coquelin get’s injured‘, and it wasn’t adequately answered over the weekend. Against a high quality Wolfsburg side, a central pairing of Cazorla and Arteta lacked both the dynamism and ball-winning ability that had been evident against Lyon.
As a consequence, Arsenal were kept on the back foot for most of the first half-hour, and unable to break as effectively as against Lyon or Everton. As with most top sides, Arsenal are most effective when they win the ball back quickly, and with Arteta in the holding role, there just isn’t the pace or strength to make that happen.
Flamini, for all his limitations offers slightly more in this department, but with his departure a possibility, that particular corner of the well-stocked Arsenal cupboard looks a little threadbare. Wilshere can be pressed into the same role he performs for England, but to be frank, he is just a little small to impose himself in a defensive midfield position when not surrounded by size.
It seems unlikely that the manager will prioritise this position, so we may find ourselves getting a little more familiar with the aforementioned Isaac Hayden as the season progresses.
All in all though, the signs are good, and the growing excitement among the fans appears to be echoed among the players judging by their interviews. As ever the proof of the pudding is in the eating, but hey, if you can’t be optimistic before the start of the season, when can you be?!