Pre-season football is meaningless, I’ve said. Pre-season football should be taken with a grain of salt, I’ve said. Pre-season football can’t be used to measure the real season, I’ve said. And yet, after Arsenal dismantled a full-strength Chelsea, 4-0 with goals from Jesus, Ødegaard, Saka, and Lokonga, while playing a fairly new brand of high-pressing, high-octane, expansive attacking football.. I have to admit, I’m cautiously optimistic for the season ahead.
Arteta started with a “back four” of Zinchenko, Gabriel, William Saliba, and Ben White and I loved it. Saliba is a revelation (to anyone who didn’t see him play last year). His passing is just awesome but even better, his recovery pace (again, we all saw this last year with Marseille – he famously tracked back and tackled Kylian Mbappe on a breakaway) and almost innate nose for trouble make him one of Arsenal’s best defenders. He played some of his best football in a back three last year (Marseille also played a back four) and a lot of us were worried that Arteta might try to shoehorn him into the Arsenal back four or that he would compete with Ben White for the lone RCB spot. But so far this pre-season, Saliba has been the one who gets to play deepest and most centrally, while White is given freedom to roam forward.
Saliba had three big stops in the first 5 minutes against Chelsea, with one an inch-perfect tackle on Timo Werner to stop a shot on goal. Ben White and Saliba switched positions often, with Saliba playing wide right and wide left whenever one of the other defenders needed to get forward or track a runner. The Arsenal back line was so versatile that Saka tried a through ball for Ben White at one point. I know that he was rumored to have played this way at Brighton but I can’t recall seeing it that often at Arsenal.
The question is what happens when Tomiyasu is back and healthy? In some ways this is a great problem to have. In others, well, it’s just a problem. But I guess I’m going to have to put my faith in Arteta to get it right.
Zinchenko on the left was awesome. He had this one pass which was just insane: a switch of possession from left back to Saka on the edge of the 18 yard box. I’m always impressed with how far footballers can kick the ball but that one blew me away for both distance and accuracy. But more than just a long kicker, Zin was effortlessly switching with Xhaka in the LCM role and I think we can predict with some accuracy that that is what Arteta wants from his LBs and LCMs.
After Arsenal went up 2-0 (which I will talk about!) however, Zinchenko was slightly switched off and Reese James got past him to put in a great cross. The only reason they didn’t score from that move is that Raheem Sterling was slightly off the pace. But it is a worry for Zin and something that we’ve been told can happen from time to time.
For the first two goals, you can see what Arteta wants his players to do. Led by the inimitable Gabriel Jesus (G9) Arsenal press and harass teams into making mistakes in their own half. Then they pounce on the mistakes and with marksmen like Jesus and Saka up top, punish the opponents.
The first goal illustrates this perfectly. Arsenal are pressing Chelsea, they are forced to go back to the keeper and recycle possession. When Chelsea lost their patience and tried a long vertical ball, Xhaka stepped in, stole the pass, and quickly passed to Jesus. Jesus supplied the perfect finish, dummying Mendy into thinking that he was going for power, he chipped him instead. Folks, I don’t want to be too optimistic here but we haven’t seen a player like Jesus since ole what’s his name, the guy who went to Man U and stunk the joint up.
I know there was a lot of speculation this summer about how Jesus would fit into the Arsenal system and they were mostly right: perfectly, is the adjective I would use.
The only question here is what happens if/when Jesus is out? He is fouled A LOT. Chelsea hit him three times in the first two minutes. So, I will be surprised if he can play 50 games this season. His backups are Martinelli and Nketiah. I like them both but there’s a dip in quality there. I can’t really see any way to change this though, so fingers crossed those two come on big this season.
The second goal was even better than the first. Again, we pressed them. This time Mendy tried a chip pass and Partey wins the ball. Partey plays to Øde, back to Partey, quick to Martinelli and this is all just a blur of verticality at this point. Øde makes his run. Martinelli holds the ball up, turns twice, finds Øde who takes a touch and fires into the corner past Mendy. Maybe a better DM for Chelsea breaks this whole play up? But I’m not sure because we played it so perfectly that even prime Kante would have been left chasing shadows.
Again, and I don’t want to keep banging this drum but, what happens when (not if) Partey is out? He’s so incredibly assured with the ball. His first touch is usually sublime and he always seems to know where to play the ball out of trouble. I just worry here (maybe I like worrying?)
The match wasn’t a complete blowout for the full 90, there were many nervy moments in the 2nd half especially when Chelsea pressured us. I’m always worried about how Arsenal handle pressure – it could be that I’m conditioned on it since the last four of the Wenger years – so maybe it’s just me. But we looked quite shaky in the 2nd half.
That is until Xhaka did a Bergkamp and nearly scored a volley off his own sombrero! Saka stole in (probably offside) and scored the rebound to make it 3-0 and get the goal he deserved. And then Sambi made it 4-0 in the dying minute when Cedric put in a 50 yard cross and the Arsenal MFer was left alone in the box.
Overall though, this pre-season so far has been great. Arsenal look to be deploying a new, more vertical style, with a high press and overlapping MFers and fullbacks. Arsenal are playing through balls, even in tight spaces with packed in defenses, and I love it. It’s just really great fun to watch.
I don’t have a prediction for where Arsenal will end up this season. There are still two weeks left before the first real match of the season and rumors that Arsenal are still in the market for Tielemans or someone like him abound. I’m patiently waiting to see what else we do in the transfer market before I set my expectations but right now? They are pretty high.