Pre-Season Over

Arsenal’s pre-season finally drew to a close on Sunday night. The focus now turns to the Premier League, where Arsenal’s match against recently promoted Brentford is the first game of the new season.

Through no fault of their own, Arsenal’s pre-season saw a fair amount of disruption. The ongoing involvement of key players at the summer’s EURO 2020, was also punctuated by a sudden outbreak of COVID-19, which rendered the team’s pre-season tour of America impossible, with hastily prepared friendlies against Millwall and Watford taking the place of their games against Inter Milan and one of either Everton or Millonarios.

13/07/2021Hibernian vs Arsenal2-1Smith Rowe
17/07/2021Rangers vs Arsenal2-2Tavares
24/07/2021Arsenal vs Millwall4-1Chambers
28/07/2021Arsenal vs Watford4-1Nketiah
01/08/2021Arsenal vs Chelsea1-2Xhaka
08/08/2021Tottenham vs Arsenal1-0

The matches
All in all, it was a fairly mixed bag, all things considered. Three losses, two wins and a draw are hardly nightmare fuel, but nor are they most convincing of results heading into the new season.

Ultimately, results in pre-season seldom matter, the focus is more on keeping fitness levels high and to ensure that the players understand the manager’s tactics.

Despite this, Arsenal’s results were a little disappointing all the same. The team’s opening game against Hibernian should really have ended in a draw, but Nicolas Pépé’s missed penalty meant that Smith Rowe’s consolation was all that stood.

A 2-2 draw with Rangers seemed to exploit the issues from set-pieces that Nicolas Jover will hope to rectify, but a decent debut from new signing Nuno Tavares and a brilliant cameo from Eddie Nketiah was enough to earn Arsenal a respectable draw.

Two behind-closed-doors friendlies against Millwall and Watford ended with the same result. The difference in quality between the two teams wasn’t quite what Mikel Arteta would have preferred, but equally, the COVID-19 outbreak in the squad meant that Arsenal were scrambling to source new games at very short notice. These two games were very comfortable experiences, but also allowed youngsters such as Miguel Azeez and Folarian Balogun to be given a run out and to find their names on the scoresheet.

The MIND Series were the final series of games for the team, with a 1-2 home defeat to Chelsea (which, but for goal-line technology would likely have been a draw) and a 1-0 away defeat to Tottenham, meant that Arsenal didn’t exactly end pre-season on a high note.

The tactics
The tactics have given a brief insight into Mikel Arteta’s plans for the new season. New signings Nuno Tavares, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Ben White all looked very comfortable in the team, however, the interesting decisions lay in defence.

Last season, Arsenal generally chose to operate a lower defensive block. Though the players would push up when in possession, defending meant that Arsenal dropped further back, however, in pre-season, Arsenal seemed far more suited to a higher defensive line.

The line will likely make or break Mikel Arteta’s defensive plans. While Ben White, Kieran Tierney and Héctor Bellerín are all suitably quick enough to support the line, Pablo Marí seemed to struggle, especially when facing faster opponents. While Gabriel Magalhães would likely be better suited to the role than Marí, his injury prognosis suggests that Arsenal may need to limp on with Marí in tow.

The high line allows Arsenal to press higher up the field and to create without the need for a bridging midfielder. Last year, Dani Ceballos and Granit Xhaka were expected to be the team’s main bridging players, but with a higher line, players like Thomas Partey are able to take charge and pick the longer passes out if needed, which previously fell to David Luiz.

Another interesting idea was the use of Eddie Nketiah. Ostensibly a striker, Nketiah was often deployed on the wing, most notably against Watford, where his curling effort was a delightful sight to behold. Nketiah worked well in the space; working through the middle often means that Nketiah is outmuscled by burlier defenders, however, the switch to the wing granted him more freedom, the chance to use his pace and meant that any physical deficiencies were masked, especially when he played down Kieran Tierney’s left-wing.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang alternated between the centre of attack and the left-wing, but seemed to struggle with both. He was arguably better suited to the central position than the wider one, but the license to travel out-wide seemed to greatly benefit him. The issues regarding finishing, which so defined the lacklustre performances Aubameyang turned in last season, still seem to remain.

As with results, misfiring in pre-season doesn’t really mean anything, as Arsenal fans would much rather than the captain didn’t score in pre-season than carry that poor form into the league, but it’s becoming harder and harder to justify his inclusion in the squad. The Gabonese forward looks increasingly lost in the team and though confidence has picked up in the team following their pre-Christmas slump, Aubameyang will need to regain his confidence if Arsenal are to be in with a glimmer of hope of European football this season.

The arrivals
Arsenal entered pre-season with a number of areas that needed addressing. Mainly, Arsenal needed a back-up left-back, a goalscoring midfielder, a creative attacker to provide cover or competition for Emile Smith Rowe, a right-back, a back-up goalkeeper and a striker (depending on departures). So far, Arsenal have addressed only one of these concerns.

Nuno Tavares was signed from Benfica to provide cover and competition for Kieran Tierney, Albert Sambi Lokonga was signed as Arsenal were impressed with his profile and Ben White was signed from Brighton so as to provide Arsenal with more defensive cover, given the permanent departures of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz and the loaning out of William Saliba.

Of the signings Arsenal have made, they look to be solid additions. Tavares looks to be a shrewd signing given his pace, the fact he can use both feet and his crossing ability; Lokonga has looked to be a very wise purchase and would be most fan’s best bet for the team’s opening match against Brentford; and Ben White too looks to be a very good purchase.

Elsewhere, Kieran Tierney has put pen to paper on a new five-year deal, along with Emile Smith Rowe, who inherits the coveted number 10 shirt and Folarian Balogun, who signed his new deal at the end of last season.

The issue Arsenal fans seem to have is not with the players signed (though the fee for Ben White has certainly raised some eyebrows), but rather the players that haven’t been.

Ajax’s goalkeeper André Onana was certainly on the Gunners’ wishlist this summer, but no deal for the Cameroonian goalkeeper materialised. The pursuit of Aaron Ramsdale seems to have done little to quell Arsenal fan worries and the lack of a permenant or loan departure for Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson has been a point of contention as well.

Missing out on Emiliano Buendía from Norwich City to Aston Villa was certainly a moment of bruising to the professional pride of the club, however, Arsenal have reportedly moved onto more exciting targets such as Martin Øegaard (long thought to be Mikel Arteta’s main target) and Leicester City’s James Maddison.

Yet, still no signings have arrived and departures are even thinner on the ground. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made departures a lot more difficult than in the past, however, no suitable offers arriving for Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Lucas Torreira, Reiss Nelson, Willian, Alexandre Lacazette or Héctor Bellerín have left Arsenal with more players than they know what to do with.

As always, Arsenal seem to have left things to the last possible moment and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, Arsenal need to ensure that they leave Mikel Arteta with a more focused squad than the one he has now.

The departures
Departures have been fairly minimal. The departure of Mattéo Guendouzi came to the surprise of absolutely no one, but the departure of William Saliba on loan did.

Given Arsenal’s lack of defensive cover after the departures of David Luiz, Mustafi and Sokraits, it seemed inevitable that Saliba would finally get his chance in an Arsenal shirt and yet the Frenchman was loaned to Marseille for the season. His loan has also precipitated Arsenal signing Ben White, which means that Arsenal have seemingly wasted time and resources on an area that was not immediately worrying.

Guendouzi’s departure is slightly more palatable. Guendouzi has been out of favour with Mikel Arteta for a while now and his future at the club always seemed uncertain after he refused to apologise for his actions after Arsenal’s 2-1 away defeat to Brighton.

Joe Willock seems likely to leave the club, with Newcastle reportedly tabling a £25m bid for the youngster, which seems to be a decent deal for all involved. Willock’s participation in the senior team was already under threat in pre-season and a full season of minimal involvement would likely have seen his value plummet.

Elsehwere, Lucas Torreira has still yet to return to the first team, but Italian club Lazio continue to hold an interest in the Uruguayan midfielder. Ainsley Maitland-Niles is of interest to a number of clubs, but as yet, no bids have been tabled; Eddie Nketiah seems destined to leave, with Arsenal rejecting a £12m bid from Crystal Palace.

Granit Xhaka had been expected to depart this summer amidst interest from AS Roma and their manager José Mourinho, however, Roma’s reticence to meet Arsenal’s valuation of the player resulted in him remaining with the club and a new contract being signed.

With just over two weeks of the transfer window remaining, there is still work to be done.

How ready do Arsenal look?
In terms of preparation, Arsenal are as ready as they need to be. Since taking over from Unai Emery, Mikel Arteta has not had a tremendous amount of time to organise his team, having missed out on a full pre-season with his team last season.

Arsenal still look a little rugged at the moment and their creativity seems to be funnelled, as always, down the left-hand channel, however, Emile Smith Rowe seems to be full of confidence ahead of the new season and has looked suitably dangerous so far.

Nicolas Pépé hasn’t perhaps been as palpable a threat as some may have hoped in pre-season, but the Ivorian has looked sharp and has linked well with his teammates, specifically with Calum Chambers.

Though Pablo Marí ended the last campaign strongly, he has looked a little rusty in recent weeks, culminating in a fairly embarrassing dive in the build-up to Tottenham’s only goal on Sunday. He should do fine until Gabriel Magalhães returns to the side, but Arsenal fans will want the Brazilian back before long.

Arsenal have already sustained casualties ahead of the season start that they could have done without.

Gabriel Magalhães was forced to withdraw from Brazil’s successful Olympics team with a knee injury that will keep him out for a few weeks, Thomas Partey was injured against Chelsea two weeks ago and seems unlikely to be back before the international break and Eddie Nketiah is likely to be out for four weeks too.

Elsewhere, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka have had extended summers and willl likely not be match-fit enough to play on Friday night, but will almost certainly be in the squad.

Assuming Arsenal sustain no more injuries the team for Friday is likely to be:

Expected subs:

  • Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson
  • Rob Holding
  • Héctor Bellerín
  • Nuno Tavares
  • Mohamed Elneny
  • Willian
  • Bukayo Saka
  • Gabriel Martinelli
  • Folarian Balogun

The introduction of 9 substitutions being allowed will likely serve Arsenal well, but without the likes of Thomas Partey, Arsenal may struggle to break Brentford down unless the forward line are at the very top of their games.

Potential injusires sustained during the game aside, it seems likely that Saka, Elneny and Willian will all be introduced at one point or another with Lacazette, Lokonga and Pépé all likely to be sacrificed late in the game.

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