By Tyler Outlaw
In the not too distant past, Arsene Wenger refused to allow the team to tour internationally during preseason. He preferred the annual curtain raiser at Barnet, followed by a quiet preseason in Austria. However, in an era of unprecedented spending in world football, the boss was forced to adopt a more lucrative preseason schedule. The amount of money to be made taking his team of international superstars abroad was just too enticing to a man who understands the economics of football better than anyone. Additionally, the preseason tours we’ve seen over the past few years have allowed many diehard Gooners from around the globe to go experience an Arsenal match live for the very first time. Those of us who have been lucky enough to make it to the Emirates for a match know just how awesome the first live Arsenal experience is, and I am thankful that supporters who live and die with the team’s results from afar are afforded the ability to see their boys in person. So while the preseason tours might be less than ideal from a purely footballing standpoint, the financial benefits and the opportunity to continue growing the Arsenal brand justifies the club’s decision.
This year, Arsenal traveled to Singapore to participate in the Barclays Asia Trophy for the first time. Arsene Wenger took the largest squad of any of the teams in the tournament, naming a 27-man squad. There were only a few notable absentees from the squad that traveled, namely Alexis Sanchez who is on holiday after Chile’s triumph in the Copa America. Other stars such as David Ospina and Joel Campbell were absent due to international responsibilities. Additionally, Tomas Rosicky and Danny Welbeck were left out because they were recovering from injury. As always, Wenger named a number of promising youngsters in the group traveling to Singapore. Perhaps it is just me, but one of the most enjoyable things about preseason is seeing these teenagers fight for their spot at the club. And a few of those youngsters took their chance in game 1 of the tournament.
Preseason is all about gaining fitness and avoiding injuries. As long as the boys get a good jog in and avoid the treatment table, I consider it a successful tune up. The performance of the squad is secondary to these primary objectives. Our first match against a Singapore Select XI was a prototypical preseason match. Wenger named a veteran back line and midfield, and handed starts to youngsters Emi Martinez, Alex Iwobi, and Chuba Akpom. Martinez did not have much to do, which makes perfect sense considering both the opposition and the fact that we played such a strong back line with a midfield two of Coquelin and Flamini. Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both looked dangerous with the ball at their feet, displaying their ability to glide past defenders with the greatest of ease. Plus, there were late cameos for youngsters such as Gedion Zelalem, Daniel Crowley, Jon Toral, and Chris Willock.
The standout performers on the day were clearly Iwobi and Akpom. Iwobi was impressive both going forward and working hard defensively throughout his time on the pitch. Akpom was the man of the match hitting a hat trick, only the second one ever in the history of the tournament. His first was a pure poacher’s finish, a ball breaking to him after a bit of a scramble in the box. His second was a well-taken penalty after Jon Toral was taken out by Singapore’s keeper. His hat trick came after some wonderful work by the substitute Bellerin, who beat his man and put in a pinpoint cross.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the talk on Twitter after the match centered on how close Akpom is to breaking into the squad, and whether or not his addition would make Wenger think twice about signing the striker many supporters believe we need. Surely enough, after the match Arsene Wenger was widely quoted as saying that with Giroud, Walcott, Alexis, and Akpom as options in the middle, there was no need to add a player. It may be unpopular, but I completely agree with the manager’s opinion on the matter. Especially when you consider that the last three summer windows have shown that he is willing to spend when the right player becomes available. If there is a striker out there who is available and can improve the squad, I have no doubt that the boss will go get him. Until that time though, I for one will be supporting the boys we do have whom I trust will deliver.
If the first match of the tournament was a prototypical preseason affair, the final of the tournament against Everton was anything but. The boss named an incredibly strong starting eleven, with the likes of Koscielny, Ramsey, Ozil, and Walcott making their preseason debuts. The manager also handed an Arsenal debut to the newest Gunner, Petr Cech. Every touch he took during the first half was cheered by the Singapore Gooners. I expect he will receive this treatment for a number of weeks. Get used to it Petr, we’re so glad you’re here.
I was surprised by a couple of things in the lineup named for the Everton match. First, Wilshere was played wide in the match, opposite Theo Walcott. Wenger recently mentioned that he thought Jack could do a job out wide, and the young Englishmen looked comfortable drifting inside from wide positions throughout. Wenger named a midfield pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla, which to a layman like myself looked a little too lightweight to succeed. However, the pairing seemed to work a charm against Everton’s midfield trio.
The boys came out and dominated Everton from the first whistle. We maintained possession, moved the ball quickly, and created a load of chances in the first hour or so. Cech did not have much to do, but did make a couple of big saves, namely tipping a Naismith header off the crossbar, and denying Garbutt from distance. Laurent Koscielny looked in midseason form, cleaning up at the back. Ramsey, Santi, and Ozil controlled the game in midfield. Walcott got a goal, and Jack was tidy. Olivier Giroud did not have the best of performances, but it is early in preseason and I fully expect him to build on from last season.
I said after the match that despite Santi Cazorla having a goal and two assists, I thought Ozil deserved to be man of the match. After further consideration, I was probably wrong, but both players were exceptional. Ozil looked at home in the middle of the park, linking up wonderfully with our midfield and attacking options. His ability to disguise where his pass is going is unrivaled in my opinion. His goal was well taken, and he even passed up a chance to square it to Ox for an easy assist. Perhaps he is aiming to add a few more goals to his repertoire, which can only be good for our chances.
Santi Cazorla is simply the gift that keeps giving. His touch in tight spaces and ability to deliver the inch-perfect pass is really something to behold when he plays in a deeper position. He had a brilliantly weighted long ball for Walcott’s goal, and played Ozil in behind for the German’s goal. The Spaniard’s ability to strike the ball with both feet had James McCarthy tripping over himself trying to deny him the shot, before Santi snuck in a shot that beat the keeper at his near post. A truly exciting performance from our little Spanish midfield wizard.
All in all, a successful trip to Asia for the lads. They got in some important work on the training ground, most of the players got 60 minutes or more of game action, and it appears that we made it through without any injuries. Plus, we were treated to a number of promising performances, picked up a preseason trophy, and the manager got a chance to try some things tactically which he undoubtedly needed. I do not envy the manager over the next month, especially as it relates to picking a first choice front 6. The keeper and defense essentially pick themselves, but the amount of talent we have to choose from in midfield and in attack will be keeping Wenger up late for weeks to come. It will not be fun for Wenger to pick the team, but we sure will have a blast cheering on the boys at Skinny Slims and George’s come August 2nd, whoever lines up in the famous red and white.
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