Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Pre-season defeat to Hibs + Arteta on Smith Rowe and Willock

Arsenal’s first pre-season game ended in defeat yesterday evening, going down 2-1 to Hibernian at Easter Road.

I watched it on an iPad in the garden while I was cooking burgers on the BBQ. They were good. The burgers, obviously. Not Arsenal. I don’t think there was much that we learned particularly, but some brief thoughts:

– Crystal Palace might come back with a reduced £10m bid for Eddie Nketiah after his miss early on. He did well to dispossess the defender and should have scored, but put his shot around the post. Rusty, sure, but I bet he thinks he should have scored too.

– Hibs’ opener didn’t look great for young keeper Arthur Okonkwo but it was his first ever game for the senior team, so give the lad a bit of a break. He really wasn’t helped by a dreadful pass back to him from Cedric, a senior player who should do more to look after a youngster in a situation like that.

– The more senior elements of our attack look like they need to put some work in to find their rhythm. It’s a bit disconcerting that Willian appears to have had a body replacement during the off-season, and that body is John Candy.

– We looked a bit better in the second half. Thomas Partey cracked the post with a free kick, Pepe looked really dangerous – even if he did miss a penalty, and Emile Smith Rowe scored a nice goal. Hibs’ second was very obviously offside, so in the Premier League that would have been disallowed … after a six minute delay during with more lines on screen than England fans did at Wembley on Sunday.

– Congrats to Okonkwo, Harry Clarke, Jack Henry-Francis, Omar Rekik and Omari Hutchinson who made their senior debuts.

– Training continues in Scotland this week ahead of a game against Rangers on Saturday. More chances for some young players, and hopefully some more ‘shop window’ worthy performances from some of the guys we want to move on.

Beyond that, it’s really just a fitness exercise. Mikel Arteta said, “I’m always disappointed when we lose a football match but it is the first game, we played with many kids and we only had four training sessions. We’ve trained really hard and you could see that the players were a little bit leggy.”

The manager was more interesting on the future of Emile Smith Rowe who has been the subject of bids from Aston Villa. He refused to comment on that aspect of things, but said:

He will stay here. 100%.

To be fair, there’s been more speculation about Smith Rowe wearing a new number than joining Villa over the last few days. Training pics without showing his training kit number have sparked plenty of discussion, and although he wore 32 last night, I don’t think that’s what he’ll wear next season. There’s talk of a new five year deal being close, and with that you’d have to think he’ll get a new number.

I’m not a betting man but if I were I might have a sneaky fiver on Smith Rowe, a creative, attacking midfielder, being allocated the number most closely associated with that kind of player. That’s right, 34. I kid, I kid. You know the one I mean. Let’s see how it goes.

Arteta also spoke about Joe Willock who didn’t play last night. It wasn’t because he was somewhere else or on the verge of leaving the club, it’s because he had a bit of an injury. Arteta said:

“He trained yesterday really well but we didn’t want to risk him. Joe is part of our plans, he’s our player and in the time that he is here we will try to make the most out of him.

“He had a great experience on loan. He was, I think one of the most important players for their survival.”

There are decisions about players which are easy to make, and others which are more complicated – this is one of those, I think. I completely understand the argument which says his stock and his value will never be higher, and that we should cash in. The flip side of that is that Arsenal’s central midfielders scored a grand total of two – TWO – Premier League goals between them last season, and we need someone who can improve us in that regard.

I know there are issues in which Willock’s style of play can be hard to accommodate in our current system but this is a system which got us 8th and a fairly meagre goal tally. We can talk about changing players until the cows come home, but what if we could find some improvement by setting up differently, and using the strengths of someone like Willock who, whatever you think of him, has always been a goal threat to some extent? Which isn’t to say he will be the difference between a good season and a bad one, but I do think you can make a decent case that he could help.

Aside from that, there was a very Arsene Wenger answer from Arteta on transfers. Paraphrasing, it was: “We’ll work hard to improve the players we have.” It’s deflection 101, nothing to get bent out of shape about at this point, and I’m sure the manager is as anxious as any of us to get some deals done and to improve the squad ahead of next season. He says Edu is working, let’s hope he’s working very hard indeed.

Right, that’s your lot for this morning. We’ll have any breaking stories on Arseblog News, and I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Until then, take it easy.

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