Arsenal kicked off their pre-season preparations with behind-closed-doors friendly against League One side, MK Dons. The game was played behind closed doors, owing to the current COVID-19 restrictions.
The game was an opportunity for head-coach Mikel Arteta to tinker with his formation, give some game-time to the talented crop of youngsters that are emerging from Hale End and for the players to give Arteta a glimpse of what they can do.
There were a few surprising inclusions from the get-to, Bernd Leno returned to the side following his injury against Bright & Hove Albion at the end of last season, Cédric Soares started at RB, William Saliba (who was signed last season from AS Saint-Étienne) started in a back three, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles (who is rumoured to be of interest to Wolves) starting as a LWB.
In midfield, Mohamed Elneny was given the chance to impress, lining up alongside Granit Xhaka, while Bukayo Saka filled in on the right wing.
The game started well for Arteta’s men. Xhaka and Elneny began to press MK Dons’ midfield and dominated possession. On the rare occasions that the ball broke through to the defence, Saliba was assured enough to handle any danger.
Elneny had clearly been given a role to show Arteta just what he could do and to really stake his claim on a place in the starting XI for the forthcoming season, and the Egyptian seemed to do just that, after MK Dons’ goalkeeper Lee Nicholls’s fluffed clearance was intercepted by the Arsenal midfielder and who promptly fired off a long-range effort into the open net in the opening four minutes.
It didn’t take long for Arsenal to find their stride from there as Cédric Soares’ ball through the middle found Saka who’s quick-feet allowed him to jink past the MK Dons defenders and set up Nketiah who’s cultured finish doubled the Gunners’ lead six minutes later.
The game slowed down a lot after thatm there were definite indications that Arsenal had taken their foot off the gas, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looking a yard or so short of pace throughout the first-half.
Saliba gave Arsenal fans a brief glimpse of what he is capable of with a sharp turn of pace saw him catch up with the onrushing MK Dons attacker, only to comfortably slide the ball out for a corner, the intelligent play from the youngster showed that he was quick enough to catch up to the attack and smart enough to deal with the resultant cut-back.
Arsenal were eventually punished as MK Dons attacked with ferocity down Arsenal’s left-hand side, with Regan Poole’s cross whipped into a dangerous area, only for the unfortunate Rob Holding to head it (somewhat impressively) past Bernd Leno to give the Dons a route back into the game.
It was an unfortunate goal to concede and it’s unlikely that Mikel Arteta will be too upset with it, given how freak-of-nature the goal was, but it was a sobering reminder to Arsenal that their concentration levels were dropping.
The second-half brought about many changes in the Arsenal lineup, with Granit Xhaka, Aubameyang, Saka, Saliba, Leno and Kieran Tierney all replaced by Emile Smith-Rowe, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Mark McGuiness, Daniel Ballard and Ben Cottrell.
Neither Arsenal or MK Dons really threatened much in the second-half, until Arsenal managed to force a corner, which was expertly taken by Emile Smith-Rowe and was met with a powerful header from the unmarked Marc McGuiness. The thunderous header gave Mikel Arteta’s side a 1-3 lead.
There were a few signs of shakiness from the Arsenal back-line, mainly from goalkeeper Matt Macey, who struggled in the wet conditions and struggled with playing-out-from-the-back on a few occasions.
Arsenal broke forward one last time in the 85th minute with Reiss Nelson, who had taken up the slightly alien role of left-winger. The role suited Nelson and his footwork on the Gunners’ left-hand side soon won him a penalty, after an MK Dons trialist brought the England youngster down, with Nelson dispatching his penalty calmly to round the game off in a 4-1 win.
Pre-season games are always an exercise in fotness than gameplan and was more of an indication of overall match-sharpness than tactical familiarity, but Mikel Arteta will have seen both positives and negatives from his team, following the holiday since the team’s 2-1 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final.
There were definitely positives from the likes of William Saliba and Mohamed Elneny, both of whom showed that they are willing to fight for their place in the side and showed comfortable performances which suited Arteta’s high-pressing gameplan.
Arsenal’s attention now turns to the Community Shield on Saturday, where they face Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.