Before we get to covering how this match played out, a number of qualifiers have to be pointed out in order to put everyone’s performance into perspective.
First off, this wasn’t a competitive fixture. As much as this is intended to be a showcase of the finest that the MLS has to offer, it was nothing more than a glorified exhibition game. Andrea Pirlo and David Villa were substituted after only 30 minutes because they have a league game in New York at 8pm GMT on Saturday. This game was played at Friday 1am GMT in San Jose, 2500 miles away. Farcical.
All 21 players in the All-Star squad saw game time, which was two fewer than how many Arsenal used. Competitive, my arse. However, even in a game played at half-pace like this one was, there were many things that stood out, even if it was against players who weren’t too bothered about losing.
First off, our first half centre-half pairing of Rob Holding and Krystian Bielik didn’t look out of their depth, as their lack of experience would have suggested. It was only a panicked, mis-placed pass by Bielik at the very end of the first half that led to Didier Drogba’s all-too-inevitable goal against us, but apart from that, Bielik looked like an adult. Drogba was trying to man-handle him for 45 minutes, and only drew one free. It was a good test for the young Pole, and he didn’t fail it.
Calum Chambers replaced Bielik at the start of the second half, and it was from then where Holding stood out. He was being very deliberate with his decisions, as is to be expected for someone making their first-team debut, but he was never out of position, and had a good knack for timing interceptions. He wasn’t afraid of stepping up and passing the ball around either, which for a team that likes to pass as much as we do, is a very nice trait to have.
Then there’s Granit Xhaka. He came on at the start of the second half in place of an anonymous Jack Wilshere (honestly, he did nothing of note in 45 minutes, which was very disappointing as he was playing with Elneny and Coquelin behind him, giving him total freedom to go wherever he wanted) and it was immediate to see what he will be bringing to Arsenal.
In short, he’s a six-foot-one version of Santi Cazorla, and I don’t use that comparison lightly. All our passing moves were initiated by Xhaka, from differing sources, all thanks to a wand of a left foot. He’s capable of the short through ball behind the defensive midfielder, and the 60-yard diagonal ball behind the full-back. He’s always looking to keep the ball moving, and moving forward at that. Mesut Özil is going to adore playing in front of him.
Is he perfect? No. His defensive positioning is sound enough, but once the ball goes past him, his recovery speed is…sub-optimal. There might be a few problems with counter-attacks whilst he adapts to the pace of English football, but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
As for the rest? Well, try to imagine the average performance of all our squad players, and you’ll have a pretty accurate gauge on how they played against the MLS All-Stars.
Theo Walcott was indecisive when he had time on the ball, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played well in five-minute bursts, Joel Campbell won a penalty, scored it, then did nothing else. Coquelin and Elneny ran around for a bit, but that was it.
The one bit of hope that we can take from this outing, is that it could establish a baseline for what to expect from Bielik, Holding, Xhaka, and Chris Willock, who had a fine 20-minute cameo at the end of the game. Nobody new that came into the side looked out of place, and all of them looked like they had plenty of room to improve.
For a friendly, that’s all you can hope for.