As our four game tour of the USA comes to a close, we finish with three wins and one narrow defeat to Real Madrid on penalties. Obviously, it’s important to remember that these games are only friendlies, but what have we learned from pre-season so far?
- We have an incredible amount of young talent at our disposal. In May, it wouldn’t exactly have been a bold statement to say that we have a great array of young talent at our disposal. However, the step-up from youth level football to playing alongside the likes of Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in front of 50,000 people is immeasurable. You constantly see players who thrived at youth level fail to make the necessary step-up to top level senior football. Thankfully, this can’t be said about many of those who were given a chance in the US. Many Hale End graduates received extended game time, such as Eddie Nketiah, Bukayo Saka, Robbie Burton and Joe Willock. Given the circumstances, I thought that they all gave a great account of themselves. It must have been surreal to be playing against Eden Hazard in front of such large crowds as a teenager, but the occasion didn’t seem to faze them. Nketiah managed to net three goals and provided a further assist during the tour. Many believed that he would be loaned out to the Championship ahead of this season, but his performances have certainly given us something to consider. Bukayo Saka also found the net during the games, against Colorado Rapids. He has an explosive burst of pace and is very strong technically. His end product leaves a little to be desired, but at just seventeen years old it is bound to improve in the years to come. Robbie Burton plays in midfield and demonstrated his ability to dictate the tempo of games as well as his impressive passing range. He may have missed a penalty against Real Madrid, but it’s important not to let that overshadow his impressive showing overall. Joe Willock looked fantastic whenever he featured. He’s a tireless runner who can carry the ball with ease, a capable playmaker and has an eye for goal too. The difference between the player who looked out of his depth at Saint James’ Park in 2018 and the player we see today is drastic. With Aaron Ramsey gone, it could definitely provide an opportunity for Willock to nail down a starting spot in the years to come. Dani Ceballos is apparently all but confirmed, but it will only be on loan. He will probably be ahead of Joe in the pecking order, but the fact that there seemingly isn’t a clause which allows us to purchase him possibly indicated that Willock is viewed as the long-term solution by Unai. We also got glimpses of Zech Medley, who looks promising. At 6’5, the physical side of his game was never in question. However, he is surprisingly effective on the ball for a man of his size, and displayed impressive passing from the back. This could be important in the long-run, given that Emery likes to build from the back.
- Mesut Özil can still be effective. As last season came to a close, things appeared to have gone stale between Mesut Özil & Arsenal Football Club. He wasn’t always in the starting XI, or even the matchday squad for many away games, and when he did feature, he was out of position and out of form. Many fans, myself included, believed that it might be best for all involved if we part ways. However, it now seems that an exit is unlikely, and that the German playmaker will be present for his seventh season in London. If I’m honest, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by Mesut’s pre-season showing thus far. He appears to be reenergized and the role that he occupied against his former club, Real Madrid, seems to suit him much more than when he is shoehorned into our system with three at the back. The conventional 4-2-3-1 plays to his strengths and seems to suit the team collectively much better than its counterpart. If a new left-back is recruited, Kieran Tierney of Celtic has been heavily linked, I hope to see us continue with this system. It mirrors that used my Arsène Wenger towards the latter years of his tenure, where we saw Özil thrive. In my opinion, his performances will be elevated even higher if a natural winger is signed before the window shuts. It will provide a much-needed outlet and give all of our creative players more room to maneuver, as if would force our opponents to drop deeper against a potential counter-attacking threat. Obviously, you can’t read too much into pre-season. For Özil, it’s only been two games. However, the form he showed was certainly more encouraging than his display in the Europa League final vs Chelsea in Baku. Long may it continue.
- Calum Chambers deserves a chance. Personally, I’m very disappointed to see that Krystian Bielik isn’t a part of Unai Emery’s plans. I believe that he is a very talented youngster who could offer a lot more than some of the existing alternatives at the club. However, thankfully it would appear that Calum doesn’t face the same fate as the young Polish Under 21 international. He was signed in 2014, and hit the ground running. However, he’s struggled for form since and numerous loan spells have been unsuccessful. Nonetheless, his stint at Fulham last season was very impressive. Obviously, his club had astronomical struggles and a horrendous defensive record. But Fulham fans insist that Calum was one of the only positives to take from an otherwise miserable return to Premier League football. He played in central defense, as well as in midfield. Although he has been on Arsenal’s books for five years now, it is important to remember that he is still only 24-years old. As well as that, to say that we are in need of a new centre-back would be an understatement. Although a deal for Saint-Étienne’s William Saliba is seemingly imminent, the young Frenchman will spend the 2019/20 season back in France, before joining up with the Arsenal squad in the summer of 2020. David Ornstein, as well as many other journalists have claimed that we are still in the market for a centre-back for the upcoming season, but with the clock ticking, we’ve seemingly left a lot of work to do - especially when you consider that we still haven’t addressed our issues out wide or at left-back. If we are unable to purchase an adequate central defender before the window’s close, I would love to see Chambers given an opportunity to prove himself. Shkodran Mustafi has made mistake after mistake and, frankly, Laurent Koscielny doesn’t deserve a single game all season if his proposed move to France doesn’t materialize. As a result, Chambers is our best option for that position, apart from Rob Holding and Sokratis Papastathopoulos. There is absolutely no reason that he shouldn’t be featuring in the Europa League group-stage along with both domestic cups. If he seizes the opportunity, then who knows what the future might hold for him. His versatility could also prove to be very useful when you consider our injury record in the years gone by, and he counts towards the homegrown quota too. Essentially, he ticks all the boxes, and I see no reason as to why he shouldn’t be given a chance to prove himself.
- Defensive signings are a must. At the start of the summer, everyone with a remote connection to Arsenal Football Club knew that our biggest problems lie in defense. There are other areas which admittedly need addressing, such as the lack of winners and a Ramsey replacement, but we simply won’t progress fully as a team until our defense is in shape. In the right-back department, I believe that we have more than adequate options. Although Ainsley Maitland-Niles isn’t a natural full-back, he is more than good enough to provide cover for Héctor Bellerín, who has started to participate in light ball work over the past week or so. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about our centre-backs and left-backs. It still remains to be seen whether we will persist with a four at the back system, or if we’ll revert back to the three that we saw towards the back end of the 2018/19 campaign. Personally, I think we’re more suited to a 4-2-3-1, bit that would require the purchase of a new left-back. Sead Kolašinac has some pros, but they are largely outweighed by his cons, for me. His lack of defensive awareness forces us to play an extra centre-half to lessen his defensive workload. It also impacts the positions of both Mesut Özil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. We’ve been heavily linked to Kieran Tierney over the past few months, and I believe that he would be a phenomenal addition. He’s quick, capable defensively, still only 22 and has a deadly final ball - totaling 29 assists over the past three seasons. It is also safe to say that his best years lie ahead of him, so the rumoured £25m price-tag that Celtic are chasing seems somewhat reasonable. People will point to the lack of quality in the Scottish League, which is a fair point. However, on the other hand, Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson were also playing in the same division at a similar age. Look at them now. I’ve already addressed most of my points regarding the centre-back issue in the section about Calum Chambers above. Although I am delighted about the prospect of Saliba arriving, we need a player for right here, right now too. Hopefully, before the window closes we will be able to recruit one player in each of the positions mentioned. I’m more than content with Bernd Leno and Emiliano Martinez as our goalkeeping options too. Leno, Bellerín, Saliba, Holding and Tierney could be our defense for years to come, as all players are still young for their relative positions. Let’s hope the moves materialize.
- Gabriel Martinelli looks like a smart investment. Although his opportunities were somewhat limited, I thought that Gabriel Martinelli looked very sharp whenever he featured. He found the net against Colorado and vert nearly doubled his tally late on vs Fiorentina. He has pace to burn, works tirelessly and is technically very gifted. Although he is only 18-years old and coming from the lower divisions in Brazil, he has something about him. The £6m price-tag is next to nothing in today’s inflated market, so it’s a low risk signing. Nonetheless, the rewards are potentially high. He has already demonstrated that he can play out wide, as well as through the middle, which may prove to be useful in the season to come. It’s important to keep everything in perspective, Colorado Rapids are very similar in terms of quality to that of a Championship side, and Fiorentina are coming into the International Champions Cup following an embarrassing domestic campaign in the 2018/19 season. We can’t get ahead of ourselves, but there are signs of promise. It will be interesting to see whether the recent form of Eddie Nketiah and Tyreece John-Jules will influence his season. With Lacazette and Aubameyang as our first two choices, the three youngsters won’t all be able to get frequent opportunities. Subsequently, one may be forced to go out on loan to one of the lower division sides or abroad. Whichever player, if any, faces this challenge will give us an insight into the current pecking order. Each of the three would benefit from week-in, week-out gametime, but it’s also important that we don’t hinder our own squad for the season to come. It will be a busy schedule, when you account for the extra round of Europa League football, and we’ll need all the depth we can get. Hopefully the young Brazilian will seize whatever opportunities are presented to him, regardless of where they may be. As long of right now, his signing looks like a solid coup that may prove to be an absolute bargain in the years to come.