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Pre-Season Flexibility between 433 and 352 -A Sign of Things To Come?

Arsenal signed off on their pre-season tour in the U.S with a thumping 4-0 win over Chelsea in sweltering Orlando on Saturday. This win gave us the chance to lift a relatively minor trophy in the Florida Cup before the big boy Emirates Cup rolls into town next week. But what does this all mean? Is Jesus going to be our best #9 since Anelka? Have we stumbled across the best back line in the league? Will Cedric complete the set and get that all-important photo op lifting the PL this season? Yes, yes and yes.

As the season rapidly approaches it is time to start fantasising about not only what we would like to see from Arsenal this season but also what we would expect to see at a minimum. With the Kroneke’s now having full ownership of the club, they are more willing to splash the cash and have veered away from our self-sustaining model in the current to mid-term. If last season’s spending was an attempt to rebuild a broken squad, this season’s spending can be seen as an attempt to upgrade the quality and depth of the squad. So far we have added Jesus, Vieira, Zinchenko, Turner and Marquinhos, renewed Nketiah, integrated Saliba back into the squad and it appears we are looking to possibly add one (hopefully two) more. This puts us at a huge advantage over last season when we did a lot of our business after the season started and has only fuelled the optimism around the club despite last season’s disappointing finale. 

I managed to catch the game at the airport and was surprised at a couple of things while watching. Firstly how impressive the atmosphere was. The next legitimate World Cup is being hosted in America and if all the games are like this then hopefully, it will go some way to making up for the clusterfuck that is happening this winter. Goals were celebrated like they were scored in the actual PL season and every foul, miss and scrap was echoed by a chorus of boos and jeers. The atmosphere was louder than the majority of PL games and whilst it was most likely due to these being such a rare occurrence in the U.S, it was impressive nonetheless. The commentators mentioned how that this was the highest ever attendance at the stadium and this noise filtered through to the players. Gallagher took on RLC’s role from last year and set out to injure every player we had on the pitch. James and Xhaka were winding each other up, as were Nketiah and Azpilicueta, whilst Alonso was diving for penalties and Lokonga ripped his shirt off. I was wincing at some of the tackles and was half expecting someone to get wheeled off in a stretcher, but it was still refreshing to see such a high-intensity game (or at least the first half) in pre-season and is hopefully a sign of things to come (not to mention how great it is to see Tuchel question his players level of physical commitment and mental commitment after the game.)  

Arsenal arguably put out their strongest team available and the team that barring any injuries will start against Palace in under two weeks, with Tierney, Tomiyasu and ESR the only potential starters missing. Zinchenko came into the side at LB just 48 hours after completing his move from Man City and Saliba filled in at RCB next to White who was playing at RB again. The rest of the team picked itself and following a frantic opening few minutes we managed to control the game and were quickly rewarded with a goal from our new messiah. Xhaka played a one-touch through ball into Jesus who finished with an effortless chip over Mendy to make it 1-0. It was a finish of a striker getting his mojo back and it made me jump out of my seat during a pre-season friendly which made me reflect on multiple things: a) what grown man celebrates a pre-season goal like that in public and b) if anything I was far too lenient on Lacazette last season. Jesus oozes confidence and I think is relishing the responsibility and seniority he is gaining in this Arsenal set-up. He is everywhere on the pitch, receiving the ball on the spin on the halfway line, pressing from the front, linking up play and bursting into the 6-yard box, all traits we have been distinctly lacking for quite some time. Not since Alexis Sanchez (another Guardiola off-cut) have we had someone come in and immediately raise the level of the squad. You can see the glint in those around him as the players know he will make those through balls, or he will at least drag defenders away to open up space for Saka, Martinelli and Odegaard to exploit. Aubameyang and Lacazette got 4 goals each last season whilst Nketiah notched 5. Jesus should hopefully eclipse all three of these combined whilst offering more of an all-round game than the previous two could as their Arsenal careers fizzled out. He will be especially enticing to Martin Odegaard who despite creating over 77 chances last season in the league, only ended the season with 4 assists. If we can punish teams more convincingly, we will be able to come back into games (we only won one game from behind last season) and hopefully increase those 22 wins into 25 or more. This will also allow us to rotate more and keep players fresh for those late-stage European games and the World Cup on the horizon. 

Another interesting development in pre-season has been Nketiah’s continued development into an important player for Arsenal. Again it is important not to take too much from pre-season, but like Saka, Nketiah has bulked up this season and is looking physically dominating and intimidating as a striker. He has notched up 6 goal involvements, looks confident and also very adept at mimicking the role that Jesus has adopted since joining the club. Nketiah will almost certainly be our main man in attack in the Europa/FA Cup/League Cup and should hopefully hit double figures in those. However, if he gets more than the 823 minutes he got last season in the league, and while this won’t be easy with Jesus at the club, hopefully, Eddie should be aiming for double figures in the league this season. Arteta has played a 3-5-2 a couple of times this season with Jesus and Nketiah so this could be an interesting option for us to start with or deploy later in games with five subs. Nketiah could also be an option out wide and share minutes with ESR/Martinelli so one to keep an eye out for.  

We have also been finally blessed to see the reintegration of Saliba into the team. The French international played 37 games for Marseille in the league last season and his 2,834 completed passes last season were the most on record in a Ligue 1 season. Furthermore, he was ranked top for possession won (260), progressive carries (558) and successful dribbles (31) among centre-backs in the French top flight. He is suited to our style of build-up and has been gifted a great opportunity to showcase his skills at CB. With Tomiyasu out, and White our best option at RB, Saliba has been given a run of games to slowly mould into this Arsenal team but if you hadn’t watched Arsenal for a while you would genuinely think he had been playing in that back line for years. He is calm and composed, demonstrates a great reading of the game, produced a couple of line-breaking passes and utilised his great burst of pace to clear up behind White and Gabriel who could be slightly more adventurous than they had been with Cedric and Tavares previously. 

He is automatically building a rapport with those around him, and this will bode well for rotating the back line to reduce injuries, adapting the team depending on the opposition and pushing Ben White and Gabriel to improve to maintain their spots with a World Cup on the horizon. Having seen White at RB a few times this pre-season, and with Tomiyasu picking up another minor knock, it does look like this is how we will start against Palace, with Zinchenko pushing up on that left flank. It is key to emphasise that Saliba has not truly been tested, Chelsea’s front three struggled to click, but he can only play what is in front of him, and so far he has gone past Arsenal fans’ already lofty expectations. Palace will be a great test for the Frenchman as he has risen to pretty much every challenge in his short but tumultuous career with Arsenal. As much as everyone is desperate to pit our defenders against each other, we have three centre-backs who are all incredible technicians and excel at the fundamentals required to be elite Premier League defenders.

It was also exciting to see Zinchenko starting at the weekend who will provide some important competition for Tierney and could even keep him out of the team when he returns. Zinchenko is a great signing and I am excited to see him integrate into the squad. Wenger was a keen admirer and tried to sign him before he joined City where he played as a #10. He was converted to a LB at City where I imagine he will start for us, however, the Ukrainian captain can still operate as a left #8 and even plays in a double pivot for his country. However, I have an inkling he may keep Tierney out due to his  injuries and as a result of his suitability to what Arteta wants from his full -back. He is more inclined to drift into the left half-space and operate as another midfielder than Tierney which will aid Martinelli or whoever is playing out wide and give us more variety in our attack. Whilst he struggled for game-time at City he still performed to an elite level in big games and none more so than his half time introduction during the last game of the season against Villa. Walker previously claimed he was one of the ‘top three’ technical players in the City set up and his incredibly quick feet and an unbelievable passing range as demonstrated on Saturday will help us sustain pressure and keep the ball higher up the pitch. His passing stats are outrageous for a defender which emphasises the role he plays for City and is arguably the role that Arteta will mimic with him. Unlike Tierney however, he is a bit shaky defensively, gets spun easily and is not good in duels, however with three of Gabriel/Saliba/White/Tomiyasu next to him it should be a trade-off to improve our attack. Zinchenko is a defensive signing that will help us with our attack and as Arteta stated after our 3-2 win against Watford, he will help us by killing the opposition “with 300,000 passes.” Zinchenko is a captain and a leader and has performed at the ultimate high-performance club, with a plethora of trophies to his name. Having previously worked with Arteta, Mikel will know how he will fit his ‘non-negotiables’ and how best to utilise him. To me, this is an incredibly savvy signing much like the Jesus move and I can’t wait to see how Tierney responds when he is back to full fitness. 

Our defence tailed off at the end of the season due to injuries and whilst it wasn’t the principle cause of us missing out on top four, it certainly didn’t help. In the run that Xhaka and Arteta have pointed to costing us top four – Palace (A), Brighton (H) and Southampton (A), we were erratic and all over the place due to our lack of depth. Xhaka was at LB against Brighton, Gabriel was unfit and shouldn’t have played against Palace whilst Cedric & Tavares cost us immeasurably as wing backs in those games. However, with Saliba being reintegrated into the squad and Zinchenko being signed at LB to compete with Kieran Tearknee, we cannot hide behind the depth argument anymore and our defensive metrics should at a minimum keep up with those numbers we were putting up in that run from December-April. Furthermore, Tomiyasu/White/Ramsdale will have hopefully settled further into the side and will have had a pre-season with each other for the first time, which will stop us from going into the curtain raiser with a backline of Mari, Chambers and Leno. 

With Fabio Vieira still recovering from an injury – our midfield against Chelsea was pretty much unchanged with Partey back at the base as a lone #6 and Xhaka and Odegaard in front as the #8s. The only games Arsenal lost/drew with Xhaka and Partey playing a full 90 last season were City at home, Liverpool at home and Everton away (Xhaka’s first game back after 3 months out injured.) Partey’s importance to this team cannot be understated – we collapsed without him at the base of our midfield at the end of the season whilst we averaged 2.04 ppg with him starting – a figure which would comfortably give us top four. We have prioritised other positions this summer  and renewed Elneny as a backup for Partey, so if he does get injured, we could be back to square one. I do appreciate that replacing Partey is probably impossible without spending an insane amount of money, as what he does is so hard to replicate, but to potentially leave it to Elneny if he is out of the side completely is a huge risk and was highlighted by Ansar in his post this week. 

Whilst we need more goals from midfield and we need to be able to break down low blocks with more ease and this is much more useful with a left #8 more suited to the role – I still think we need Xhaka to steer the ship into next season (especially if we lose Partey’s influence – the man barely makes 20 starts a season). Xhaka has been arguably the most consistent player (bar Saka) for Arsenal in the last two years and whilst he has his limitations and a ceiling that say for example a Tielemans doesn’t have – he very rarely drops below a level that you could argue is destabilising for the team. And again, not to harp on about it but we need to stop fearing depth. Xhaka may have to come in and play in a two if we lose Partey and this is why another midfield signing is essential. We cannot replace what Partey does as he is so unique but we can have other formations and options in midfield if (or when) he is out of the team. 

Another interesting factor going into this season is the captaincy and who it will go to in Aubameyang and Lacazette’s absence. As Le Grove pointed out the captaincy has been a poisoned chalice for Arsenal arguably since Vieira through a combination of being our players being handed the captaincy to keep them at the club, as a result of their status or by giving injury-prone players the captaincy. Odegaard, who has been wearing the armband throughout pre-season, is none of these. Whilst there are several drawbacks to his appointment – he does seem to go quiet in big games and doesn’t seem to be the commanding type – he is fast becoming one of our most vital players, has fallen in love with the club, is tied down on a lengthy contract, has been playing in Europe’s top leagues for nearly a decade, is well respected by his countrymen who he captains and he is Arteta’s technical leader on the pitch. 

Xhaka – who is unequivocally our unofficial captain and is respected and adored by players and staff – had to say this about the Norwegian: 

“He’s already captain when Alexandre Lacazette does not play. He can be very proud of himself. You can see how far he has come in his head, mentally. He is very young, only 23, but in how he behaves and is on the field, he looks like he’s 30. It looks like he has already played 500 or 600 games.”

“He can definitely become Arsenal captain. He has the DNA in him. He works as hard every day as if he were in a fight. He does a lot of extra work. He is humble. Everyone in the dressing room listens to him. Why not?”

With Xhaka out of the equation for obvious reasons, Lacazette and Aubameyang gone and Tierney spending too long on the sidelines, Odegaard seems the natural choice. The bar is very low for Odegaard following the last few (Aubameyang should never have been made captain) but I think Odegaard has all the tools to succeed. 

Odegaard will be another player looking to improve again this season. He had another impressive season last year but Arteta will be hoping for him to influence games the way we know he can in every single game he plays. In April, Arteta mentioned how the work he was doing on the training pitch with Odegaard would start to bear fruit at the start of this season. ”What we are working on now, you will see in three months or six months,” Arteta explained. The Norwegian was another man to get on the scoresheet in the friendly and I think he will be the main benefactor of Jesus up top. He was the stalwart and Arteta’s technical leader of the team last season, playing pretty much every game bar one dip in form early in the season. Against Chelsea, he immediately recaptured his form on that right hand side with Saka and the introduction of Jesus looks to have only aided the fluidity between those three. As mentioned previously, if he keeps creating changes at the rate he was last season, then his tally of 4 assists in the league will be comfortably beaten with the introduction of Jesus. As pointed out by Tim Stillman on the Arsenal Vision Podcast, as will his ability to get into the box where most of his goals came from last season (and against Chelsea) as this position is not being constantly taken up by Lacazette. 

Edu sat down and gave some interviews with journalists in America and whilst there was a lot of classic corporate talk and revisionism – there were some interesting quotes and most notably about how 22/23 was the target season in place for this team to explode (I am paraphrasing some what). I think all signs have pretty much pointed to this being the case, with such a young squad being signed and with those more senior players being pushed out the door. The squad is now well balanced, deep and has the potential to grow exponentially. However, with this spending comes increased expectations and I think we are now in a position where we can compete in the majority of the competitions we are in this season, whilst also improving our standing in the league. However, whilst our moves are all incredibly exciting, we are not the only ones improving this season. Spurs have added Richarlison, Bissouma, Lenglet, Perisic and Spence amongst others, Chelsea have signed Sterling and Koulibaly and will probably add another few, whilst Man United have hired an actual functioning manager. The Chelsea game was fascinating and whilst I should know to not read too much into these games, it provided an interesting window into how the team is going to function against Palace and the rest of the season.

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