Pre-season friendlies can often be summed up by saying “what little we learned, we already knew”. More than a lesson, they are often a refresher. Like the first few weeks of math class, where you spend hours going over the things you learned last term, in order to prepare you for the year ahead. And so it was as the Arsenal collected a 3-1 victory over our gracious stateside hosts the AFC Orlando City SC Balompie Real United.
Kickoff was delayed an hour due to torrential rain, giving those of us in the 7am house quite the chuckle as Brits who wanted to watch live were forced to stay up until 0130 for kickoff and 0330 for conclusion. I chuckle in commiseration, not spite. To paraphrase Billy talking to Gloria in White Men Can’t Jump “I too know what it feels like to watch Arsenal at ungodly hours of the day”.
As we waited for kickoff I watched part of the first half of Everton against Minnesota United FC. The Toffies were getting crushed by the Loons, who would eventually go on to win 4-0 and leave “Frank Lampard fuming at his players”.
Switching over to the Arsenal I let out an audible laugh at the first half lineup. Not at the players themselves but more for what they represent among many vocal folks in our fanbase. Holding, Cedric, Elneny, Tavares, Pablo Mari, PEPE, and Maitland-Niles are a veritable Rogues Gallery of players a lot of fans would like to see sold or at least loaned out “to get experience (away from the Arsenal first team and thereby force the club to buy new players)”.
But nothing I’m saying here is fresh or news. We all know the level of Arsenal’s reserve team and that it needs improvement and it’s not a major shock to suggest that a starting three-man midfield of Elneny, Maitland-Niles, and Lokonga (especially with Tavares at LB, Cedric at RB, and with Mari and Holding trying to start play from the back) would be less than ideal, even in a group match in the Europa League.
And frankly, it showed. Holding got a yellow in the first minute for a pull. Maitland-Niles had one of his matches where his touch was unbelievably bad and his passing somehow worse (he also got a yellow card for pulling a shirt) and Tavares had another match to forget – though some of the shots he took will live on in my memory for a while, just for their sheer hilarity.
Arsenal’s lobe bright spot in that first half was G11. Picking the ball up and driving at defenders is his bread and butter, and he did that with aplomb. He scored a lucky goal off a deflection in the 5th minute but overall it was probably what he deserved from his efforts.
The first half was also interesting from a tactical standpoint. Sometimes, the players with less ability can show you the manager’s tactics much more starkly because they are just that little bit more obvious with what they are doing. Almost like they are saying in their minds “ok, now I need to make this run forward” or “boss says keep the line high, play brave” and so they do.
First, Arteta clearly had the left and right sided midfielders high up the pitch. Sambi Lokonga assisted G11 Martinelli with his goal by literally posting up in the low block and playing a one-two with the Brazilian. Meanwhile on the other side of the pitch, Maitland-Niles was caught offside several times.
And the Arsenal back line was caught incredibly high up the pitch on a few occasions in that half (and in the second, though not quite as high), one time all 10 Arsenal outfield players were in the Orlando (BSC) half which allowed a simple pass (unchallenged) through to Michel for a one-v-one with Ramsdale. Michel probably should have scored but Ramsdale made a kick save (and a beaut) to deny the goal.
Orlando did score eventually with another long pass, though this time the problem was poor communication between Pablo Mari, Tavares, and Elneny. No one really got tight to Torres and he got off a shot that was partly shielded and perfectly placed to get past Ramsdale and nestle into the bottom corner. Ramsdale was not pleased with that effort!
The second half was, again, no news, though the football was much more fun to watch. Arteta brought on G9 and Ø8 with some immediate effect. Jesus is a very direct player, he seems to revel in taking on opponents. This causes teams to collapse on him and ill-disciplined defenders to double or even triple-team him. All of which makes the game easier for his teammates: spaces are more open when three players crater on Jesus.
And yet, Arsenal still hadn’t quite gotten the go-ahead goal so Arteta – in a bid to show the Kroenke’s (who were at the game) that he needs some reinforcements* – threw on X34, P5, William Saliba, and Bukayo Saka.
It wasn’t long before having a lot of our best players in their best position suddenly made Arsenal best. Nketiah scored the 2nd Arsenal goal, again with everyone in the Orlando defense focused on Jesus (G9) which freed up space for Ø8 and N14 to work a little magic. And for the third goal it was Saka drawing in defenders and crossing a delightful chipped cross to Reiss Nelson who just popped the ball in while the Orlando defenders still hung on G9.
Overall it was a good workout for Arsenal and preparation for the bigger friendly this weekend against Chelsea.
If I’m going to be worried for the season ahead, I’d say it’s patently obvious that Arsenal have a major problem in midfield (still). X34 isn’t really suited to the LCM role and can’t really play the DM role the way that Partey can (though he’s a strong player who is better than most of our options). None of the backups so far have proven themselves to be good enough either. No one hates Elneny but his defense is poor at best. Lokonga is the one I thought we were trying to bring along in the DM role but it hasn’t worked so far. I’m not saying that anyone is “crap”, rather that the drop off in levels between Partey and anyone else in that role is glaringly obvious. This wouldn’t be a huge problem except that Partey has averaged 25 90s each season he’s been at Arsenal. If (touch wood) he stays healthy for all 50 matches this season, no problem. If not.. well.
But like I said from the start, I don’t think this is news to anyone. This is the exact problem we had last season and a major reason why we missed out on top four.
*I don’t really believe this but it is something people say all the time!