Pain in the arsenal
Arsenal drew 1-1 with Chelsea in their third International Champions Cup match on Wednesday night. Here are three players who impressed during the contest.
It was interesting to see the new Unai Emery Arsenal play a Premier League rival in Chelsea also going through managerial change, Maurizio Sarri replacing Antonio Conte at Stamford Bridge.
The game was played at a high tempo with a good entertainment value. Chelsea were much the better side early on, but their London rivals grew into the game and eventually scored the equaliser they deserved with the final kick of the game.
Here are three players who impressed from the 1-1 draw. (Special mention for Petr Cech who saved two penalties, one in normal time and one in a shootout, and made a series of excellent saves during the 90 minutes. I didn’t include him as I wanted to focus on the outfield players, but this was Cech at his very best).
The reason I didn’t include Cech is that I wanted to especially highlight the impact of Alexandre Lacazette when he was introduced midway through the second half.
The Frenchman came on for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, immediately provided a greater focal point as the lone centre-forward with a strong first touch and astute hold-up play and scored the crucial goal in stoppage time.
He also could have scored two others, cleverly creating space for himself on both occasions with two nice touches to cut inside and swerve outside the respective Chelsea defender, only to see both efforts brilliantly saved. But it was his overall influence that was so encouraging to see, and should give Emery food for thought for the season ahead.
It remains to be seen whether Emery wants to play Aubameyang as a striker with Lacazette on the bench or with Lacazette through the middle and Aubameyang out wide.
I think we saw here, again, that Lacazette offers a greater hold-up ability in the striking role, can score goals with his sharp movement in and around the penalty area, and provides a partner for Aubameyang who was largely isolated for the period he was on the pitch.
The result doesn’t really matter. It was nice that Arsenal were able to score and then win on penalties, scoring all of theirs in the shootout, but it will have no effect on the season to come.
What is far more important is the relative sharpness of the players, especially those who played the full 90 minutes, and few looked sharper than Mesut Ozil.
His influence was lacking in the early stages, resigned the peripheries of the match, but as Arsenal were better able to play the ball from deeper areas and into midfield, and as Ozil realised the need for him to drift in from his right-wing position and collect the ball in other areas of the pitch, it grew and grew and grew.
By the end of the match, Ozil was at the heart of everything. The waves of Arsenal attacks often flowed through him and his passing, as he dropped into midfield, turned with the ball at his feet and looked to pierce the Chelsea defence with threatening through-passes and accurate, whipped-in crosses.
More than his passing, his chance-creation and his overall influence on the game, it was most pleasing to simply see Ozil looking fit and ready for the season ahead. Like him or loathe him, he will be pivotal to Arsenal’s fate.
Matteo Guendouzi was Arsenal’s best player. Yes, there were moments when he got a little ahead of himself, almost losing the ball and allowing Chelsea an easy counter-attack at an exposed Arsenal defence.
And yes, in the first half especially, he would drop too deep into the defence, meaning that there were few options available in front of the centre-halves, inviting pressure onto the team. And yes, he did make a few wayward passes here and there. But, all in all, this was a very good display from a 19-year-old making only his third start for a new club with new teammates against excellent opposition.
What was most pleasing about his performance was his passing, and the confidence that came with it. He was the one instigating Arsenal’s attacks from deep, not Mohamed Elneny.
He was the one pushing the team up the pitch with passes into the final third. He was the one who set the tempo, who was brave in his play, who was willing to receive the ball under pressure and then play forwards.
He was also extremely energetic and industrious in the midfield. He was committed in his tackles, he intercepted numerous passes, and he provided legs where Elneny and Emile Smith Rowe were somewhat absent.
This was not the perfect performance, obviously, and Arsenal’s general struggles in the first half are signs that he lacks the experience and nous to understand the shape, and his role in the shape, that the midfield must take in and out of possession.