A pre-season game against even a weakened Atlético Madrid was never going to be a walk in the park. Of course, Arsenal were without the normally-idle Mesut Özil and, with Unai Emery in the hotseat, therefore were expected to work harder than was seen for much of last season. In that sense, Arsenal did not disappoint.
The player who epitomised that industrious spirit most was Matteo Guendouzi. The France Under 20 international was so dominant in midfield that I couldn’t help but be impressed; he was like two players, such was his mobility. Some fans might be calling Guendouzi ‘Sideshow Bob’ because of his appearance, but the Frenchman seemed to run the show on this occasion, displaying a maturity well beyond his 19 years. He certainly took centre stage.
Despite his ceaseless energy, Sideshow’s performance was not perfect. Trying to dribble out of your own six-yard box is rarely a good idea, and when Aaron Ramsey came to the rescue, the skipper made a dangerous situation worse. Consequently, Atlético nearly scored. It makes you wonder how focused Ramsey is on his Arsenal future. If Captain Rambo doesn’t sign a new deal, what sort of message does that send out, especially when he’s wearing the armband?
Aside from that defensive error, Arsenal looked reasonably assured, despite the Spanish side taking the lead in the first half with a bullet header. There was not much anyone could do about that and you had to feel sympathy for new goalkeeper Bernd Leno, who deserved a clean sheet for a solid performance. The German exudes a sense of calm and stays on his line, which are qualities that bode well for his Arsenal future.
While Guendouzi looked like an upgrade on Mohamed Elneny, Shkrodan Moustafi seemed like an upgraded version of himself. Meanwhile, Rob Holding looked comfortable alongside him in central defence. It just goes to show how important it is to have a midfielder like Guendouzi, who closes opponents down, protecting the back line.
Up front, I’m not sure it was the right decision to put Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang on the left and play Alexandre Lacazette in the middle. Personally, I’d have switched the pair, but both came reasonably close to scoring, so it worked to a point.
When the goal came, it arrived from an unlikely source: Emile Smith Rowe. The youngster played well and capped it with his memorable swerved long-range strike, which he’ll be able to dine off for many years to come. As long as he can live up to this level of potential, he’ll have a fine future ahead of him.
As regards, the rest of the youngsters, I haven’t really seen anyone breaking through that would be a shoo-in for my first eleven, if I was Emery. Ainsley Maitland-Niles, obviously, has a lot of ability (evidenced by his Panenka-style penalty) but I’m not sure he’s going to be an Arsenal legend. For me, there are question marks about his attitude.
In fact, there’s a certain nonchalance about a lot of players at the club, which doesn’t always lead to the best results. Players like Özil, for example, might not be so inclined to work as hard for the cause as the Guendouzis of this world. I’d even put Henrik Mikhitaryan in the same category. Players like this may ooze class, but sit on their backside when the chips are down. Aside from Smith Rowe, many of the other youngsters coming through at Arsenal, give the impression that they believe themselves to be a cut above the rest. That’s fine, as long as they work hard to prove it.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that youngster Reiss Nelson put in a reasonable shift. That doesn’t mean to see that this year will be his ‘breakthrough season’. I can’t see that happening, as his technique flatters to deceive and there is not enough end product. Additionally, based on this performance, his understanding with Hector Bellerin has a long way to go.
As I’ve mentioned before, I can see Stephan Lichtsteiner playing at right back with Bellerin rampaging forward ahead of him. I think the Spaniard would put more crosses in the box than Nelson. Although many Arsenal fans would love to hang me for stating this: I think Theo Walcott would have been a better option on the right wing than what Arsenal have going into the next campaign.
It makes you think that the Gunners need to bring in one more player, before the season begins in earnest, as it won’t be possible to beat top teams with eye-of-a-needle football down the middle all the time. Arsenal need to learn to play with natural width, but that may only be possible if the Gunners splash out once again in the transfer market and bring in a player who loves to get chalk on his boots. The current squad do not seem to possess that quality, so it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, if Arsenal are going to be serious title contenders next season.