For Arsenal, Wembley is fast becoming a second home. Over the past seven years, Arsenal have played there (excluding league games) no fewer than thirteen times, losing only twice and drawing (but going on to win) another two. It’s a remarkable record and one that was extended further with Arsenal’s 2-1 win over Chelsea in the FA Cup final, only three weeks ago.
Saturday brought about the traditional season curtain-raiser, the Community Shield. The Community Shield is usually played a week before the Premier League season, but given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the scheduling of the forthcoming international fixtures, the game was played two weeks before the season opens on September 12th.
Arsenal’s opponents on Saturday were Liverpool. Though the two sides had met previously in July, with Arsenal just narrowing out the visitors in a 2-1 win, Liverpool went into the game very much the favourites as the Premier League champions faced off against the FA Cup winners.
Liverpool undoubtedly had the advantage going into Saturday’s game, their season had ended earlier than Arsenal’s and had returned to training earlier. Though Arsenal had played a pre-season friendly against MK Dons, Liverpool were thought to be further ahead, having beaten VfB Stuttgart in Kitzbühel and drawn against Red Ball Salzburg in Wals-Siezenheim.
There were a few changes from the side that beat MK Dons on the Tuesday; Emiliano Martínez returned between the sticks in place of Bernd Leno, Héctor Bellerín replaced Cédric Soares at right-back and David Luiz replaced William Saliba in the centre of defence. For Liverpool, a full-strength side, though with the notable absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Liverpool got the game underway and immediately began to dominate. Liverpool’s patented gegenpress system focused on overloading Arsenal’s defence from the flanks, with Andy Robertson enjoying several attacks down Arsenal’s right-hand side. Liverpool were able to draw fouls from the flanks and had the ball in the back of the net only to have the linesman’s flag raised.
Despite Vigil van Dijk’s disallowed goals, Liverpool’s efforts didn’t seem to trouble Arsenal too much. Martínez was called into action every now and then, but for the most part, Liverpool seemed to lack the final ball necessary to really punish Arsenal.
To everyone’s surprise, it was Arsenal who took the lead. A criticism of Arsenal since the departure of Arsène Wenger has been around the team’s apparent insistence in playing-out-from-the-back, a tactic that was humiliatingly unravelled under Unai Emery, seems to have been perfected under Mikel Arteta as Arsenal let rip a devastating counter-attack which started with Martínez. A clever ball down the right-hand flank from Bellerín released Bukayo Saka, who’s cross-field ball found captain, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who compensated for young Neco Williams’ poor positioning to curl a stunning effort beyond the fingertips of Alisson Becker to give Arsenal an admittedly undeserved lead, with the Arsenal captain celebrating with the trademark “Wakanda Forever” celebration in honour of actor Chadwick Boseman, star of the famous Black Panther films, who sadly passed away with colon cancer the same day.
Arsenal came close again with Eddie Nketiah’s effort being kept out by Alisson, though Arsenal never really troubled the Brazilian much beyond that.
As half-time came and went, it was very much one-way traffic. Liverpool’s extended pre-season definitely aided them more than Arsenal and the North London side’s tiredness began to show and Liverpool took full advantage.
But for all their pressure, Liverpool just didn’t seem to be able to put the ball in the back of the net, with Sadio Mané missing a number of guilt-edged chances. However, in the 59th minute, Neco Williams was replaced by Takumi Minamino, who began to cause Arsenal some real problems. The Japanese forward’s quick feet and incisive dribbles began to undo a lot of the handwork that the Arsenal defence had done up until that point and it wasn’t totally surprising to see Minamino equalise in the 79th minute.
Arsenal managed to withstand the subsequent Liverpool pressure, thanks in no small part to birthday boy Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who worked tirelessly to keep out Liverpool’s wingers.
As the final whistle blew, penalties beckoned. The Community Shield eschews traditional added time and instead goes for the jugular with a penalty shootout. After a coin toss, Liverpool went first.
The two teams were neck-and-neck in the penalty shootout until Liverpool youngster Rhian Brewster’s penalty skimmed the top of the crossbar. From then, Liverpool were waiting for Arsenal to miss, but Cédric Soares, David Luiz and Aubameyang all converted their penalties to give Arsenal the win.
Much like the game in July, it wasn’t the most deserved victory for Arsenal, but unlike in July, where Arsenal had very much been holding on for dear life, Saturday’s game looked like Arsenal were a little closer to perfecting the formula of what Mikel Arteta wants from his side.
In July, Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka had both been routinely bypassed by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Georginio Wijnaldum, however, Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny stood their grounds and frequently caused problems for Liverpool’s admittedly makeshift midfield, with Virgil van Dijk constantly berating Wijnaldum and Fabinho for careless possession losses.
In defence, Arsenal looked solid. Though David Luiz had only one day of training prior to the match, he lined up well with Rob Holding and Kieran Tierney, who managed to keep Roberto Firmino quiet. Firmino’s silence in the match is likely what aided much of Arsenal’s defensive performance. The Brazilian thrives on dropping deep to collect the ball and finding pockets of space to exploit, but David Luiz, Holding and Tierney kept the Liverpool number nine quiet for much of the match before his substitution in the 82nd minute.
The performance of Ainsley Maitland-Niles caught the eye as well. The full-back was able to nullify Sadio Mané’s threat in the second-half and was perhaps the only full-back capable of matching the Senegalese winger for pace. Maitland-Niles was assured going forward but knew when to stay back to protect the Arsenal shape and his man-of-the-match award was as well deserved as his subsequent England call-up just a few hours later.
Arsenal recently rejected a £15m from Wolves for Maitland-Niles, but with a man-of-the-match performance against the champions, another bit of silverware under his belt and a subsequent England call-up, it’s likely that his valuation has only increased further.
Though the Community Shield is perhaps not the same as winning a Premier League or any other competition for that matter, it is still a trophy that all teams want to win when playing in it and for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta, it extends the belief in the side that there is a quiet revolution brewing for Mikel Arteta’s side.
The performance has also solidified the need to confirm the signing of Gabriel Magalhães from Lille as soon as possible and an extension for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as well, as the Gabon forward once again proved his metal at Wembley, though thankfully, this time, he didn’t drop the prize.
26.) Emiliano Martínez
2.) Héctor Bellerín (Cédric 59’)
23.) David Luiz
16.) Rob Holding
3.) Kieran Tierney (Kolašinac 82’)
15.) Ainsley Maitland-Niles
34.) Granit Xhaka
25.) Mohamed Elneny
7.) Bukayo Saka (Willock 82’)
14.) Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (c)
30.) Eddie Nketiah (Nelson 82’)
1.) Bernd Leno
4.) William Saliba
17.) Cédric Soares
24.) Reiss Nelson
28.) Joe Willock
31.) Sead Kolašinac
32.) Emile Smith-Rowe
47.) Tyreece John-Jules
54.) James Olayinka
1.) Alisson Becker
76.) Neco Williams (Minamino 59’)
12.) Joe Gomez
4.) Virgil van Dijk (c)
26.) Andrew Robertson
5.) Georginio Wijnaldum (Brewster 90+2’)
7.) James Milner (Keïta 59’)
11.) Mohamed Salah
9.) Roberto Firmino (Jones 82’)
10.) Sadio Mané
8.) Naby Keïta
16.) Marko Grujić
17.) Curtis Jones
18.) Takumi Minamino
21.) Konstantinos Tsimikas
24.) Rhian Brewster
67.) Harvey Elliott
89.) Billy Koumetio