Although it doesn’t finish until 11th August, the International Champions Cup (ICC – where have we heard that acronym before) has been a great success. Top clubs in Europe have played out frenetic games in front of large crowds, so what’s not to like?
Arsenal’s involvement this year is over, but who can forget the tossing of a credit card instead of a coin before the match against PSG. Talk about maximising advertising potential!
With 18 European teams only playing three games each and penalty shoot-outs to determine winners at the end of each match, these pre-season friendlies have been intense. Teams have been going at it hammer and tongs, hoping for three points for an outright win, two for a win on penalties or one for a defeat on penalties.
The match between Chelsea and Arsenal in Dublin was a case in point. The tempo of this London ‘derby’ on neutral turf was unexpectedly intense. The Blues raced into an early lead, when a Cesc Fabregas corner was expertly concerted by Germany international Antonio Rudiger.
The same old defensive frailties were haunting Arsenal, who seemingly chose Emile Smith Rowe as Rudiger’s man-marker. The German stands at 1.90m and is built like a proverbial ‘brick house’. The question is why was 18-year-old Smith Rowe assigned that duty? Surely there was someone in the starting eleven more suited to that job? As it was, Arsenal paid the price for poor organisation, which is not something we’d expect to accuse the meticulous Unai Emery of. To make matters worse, the mismatch of the same teenager man-marking the Chelsa goal scorer continued into the second half. Clearly, lessons were not being learned.
Once the first goal was conceded, Arsenal looked all at ‘sixes and sevens’. I’m not sure why this idiom is relevant, as in football it should be ‘fives and sixes’, with Arsenal’s five captains and sixth position in the league coming to mind. However, that’s neither here nor there. New signing Sokratis Papastathopoulos (easy for you to say) seemed particularly affected; he must have wondered about why he took the Socratic oath for central defenders before signing on the dotted line for Arsenal. The oath goes something like this: ‘I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant: I will respect the hard-won tackles of those defenders of yesteryear (Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown etc) in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow (Rob Holding, Calum Chambers, Konstantinos Movrapinos etc). Most of all, I refuse to be bullied by the Didier Drogbas, Diego Costas and Romelu Lukakus of this world and will never lack ‘castanets’, when dealing with Troy Deeney and his ilk. To all of this, I solemnly swear.’ It was clear, that Sokratis’s castenets were playing out of time with the rest of the team, upon going a goal down, and this development was worrying.
Panic began to spread like wildfire and even Matteo Guendouzi, who once again provided a stellar performance, looked slightly put out by the score line and by how outclassed Arsenal were, at this stage.
A second Chelsea goal looked inevitable and everyone thought it had duly arrived when speedy Callum Hudson-Odoi was felled in the box by Hector Bellerin. It looked like it was all over: Arsenal’s fastest player had been made to look like a Honda Civic racing against a Ferrari and now Petr Cech (who until comparatively recently, didn’t do penalties) was now facing a spot kick. During the wait, I got to thinking about how I met someone with almost the same name as Chelsea’s tricky wiseman: Alan Hudson. That England midfielder was a prodigious talent and, when I met him in TWI’s studios, I expected him to say something nice about Arsenal and the time he spent there. I was disappointed to hear that Hudson was so bitter about his time with the Gunners. Hudson would get his revenge through Hudson-Odoi. It got me thinking how seeing as double-barrelled names are all the rage now, how about if clubs insisted that each new player take a name of previous legend in front of his own surname. Chelsea could really do with an Osgood-Schlatter or two, couldn’t they? (Note to readers: if you’ve got any ideas about double-barrelling the current Arsenal crop, please let me hear from you.)
It seems like I did a lot of thinking before Alvaro Morata stepped up to take the penalty. Morata’s reputation is not the best at Chelsea and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets bombed out, particularly as Arsenal’s skipper for the day, Cech, comfortably saved the spotkick.
Meanwhile, Hudson-Odoi continued to cause havoc and only Shkodran Mustafi’s headed clearance prevented a certain goal from the diminutive speed king. On that note, I cannot understand why some Arsenal fans want to sell Mustafi. Apparently, Galatasaray want to sign the Germany international and the Gunners will not sell for less than €25m. Given that he has been the best defender in the pre-season, I wouldn’t sell him right now. In fact, I was shocked when Arsenal considered offloading him last summer. On his day, Mustafi is extremely solid and it must not be forgotten how long Arsenal went undefeated when he first arrived. I think Mustafi will put most of his problems and errors behind him under Emery.
In fact, most of the players seem to be responding well to the new boss. Sead Kolasinac’s fitness levels seemed higher than during his previous outing and the same could be said of Mesut Ozil. The retired Germany international fought hard for the cause (well, to a point, at least) and looked sharp going forward.
Most of the team managed to put in a much-improved performance as the game went on, although I would have to say that I was disappointed with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s display. The lone striker seemed to have forgotten where the net is. The problem with playing an out-and-out striker wide is when you move them back to a central position, they take time to readjust.
Once Alexandre Lacazette replaced him, Arsenal’s goal threat increased. It was no surprise when Lacazette scored a last-minute equaliser from Reiss Nelson’s cross. Although I’ve stated that Nelson is not ready to start the season as Arsenal’s right winger, it may be the only viable option available. It was a great cross, anyway, and I was so impressed with the youngster’s attitude, particularly as he didn’t allow some misfortune on the pitch to bring him down. On one occasion, Nelson produced a flash of skill but no end product, as the ball rolled out for a goal kick. However, the youngster was unfazed and continued to work hard and believe in himself. Nelson’s penalty during the shoot-out was another indication that the talented boy is becoming a man to be relied upon. Whether he can maintain it over a whole season is what I’m not so sure about, but his performance augurs well.
Another player who impressed me was Alex Iwobi. The Nigeria international was sharp and seems determined to force his way into Emery’s starting eleven. On this performance, I’d find it difficult to leave him out.
Smith Rowe also produced another mature performance, particularly creditable given he was a last-minute replacement for Aaron Ramsey. I know I am cynical, but I do wonder whether a calf injury in the warm-up was the real reason behind his absence. Perhaps a bid was received from another club and the manager decided enough is enough. Emery has already offered Ramsey the fifth of a captain’s armband for his loyalty, so what does the Welshman expect? Financial parity with the less hard-working but more inspirational Ozil? The truth is Ozil is overpaid, but can destroy any team on his day. You tend to think ‘Ozil’s days’ will be more frequent under the new management. However, in pre-season, we’ve seen a less-than-impressive Ramsey, who looks uncommitted and therefore surplus to requirements. I’ll expecy he’ll leave before the transfer window closes.
The Arsenal midfield looks strong, when you consider Lucas Torreira will be a certain starter. Alongside Guendouzi, central midfield can become Arsenal’s strength rather than its weakness. Based on this performance, I’m not sure I’d start Elneny, as he looked decided shaky. In fact, Arsenal might be advised to try out Iwobi and Nelson from the start in the final friendly against Lazio with an eye on the Man City fixture. A possible starting line-up could be: Cech; Bellerin, Mustafi, Chambers, Kolasinac; Torreira (if he’s ready), Guendouzi, Ozil, Nelson, Iwobi; Lacazette.
Another player thriving under the new regime appears to be Calum Chambers. I don’t know what they are doing in training but the England international appears to be fitter, sharper and quicker than I’ve ever seen him.
Returning to the game, it was fitting that Cech should save a penalty to win the game for the Gunners. Reuben Loftus-Cheek didn’t really look at the races when he lurched up to take his spotkick. That should take nothing away from Cech, whose match-winning save and performance had the Arsenal fans in rapture. After all, Cech’s recent rapping ‘skills’ had many speculating that he would soon be ‘offski, ya’ll’. On this performance, you’d have to have to say there’s life in the old boy yet and Leno may well have to wait patiently for his chance between the sticks.
Of course, the pre-season is only that, but the intensity of this one suggests that Arsenal have a good season ahead of them: top four should be achievable and perhaps even more.