Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Pre-season ends with another defeat: thoughts and observations

Morning. Some thoughts on the pre-season friendly defeat to Sp*rs yesterday.

Albert Sambi Lokonga

I was pleased to see him start in midfield, and it feels like this was a kind of audition for the 21 year old. If it was, it was one he came through well and while it was ‘just pre-season’, he didn’t look at all out of place against decent opposition.

If you, like me, aren’t exactly enamoured with the idea of starting a new season with a midfield of Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny, there’s encouragement because he did enough yesterday to prevent that. He was tidy on the ball, read the game well, and showed more than enough for him to convince the manager he should make his full debut on Friday night against Brentford.

Ben White

We weren’t perfect at the back, but to my mind the new signing was impressive, not helped particularly by an iffy performance from his more experienced partner, Pablo Mari. We saw some of what convinced us to pay £50m for him, carrying the ball from the heart of the defence, good passing range and always looking for a way to play it forward if he could.

I thought some of his one on one defending was pretty good too. Early days, obviously, and we need to see more of him, but I liked what he did yesterday.

Firepower

I’ve joked a bit about Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang not scoring, and I should reiterate that I don’t enjoy seeing him on the left. I think we were short of options there yesterday which informed the team selection, but in general it’s hard not to worry about him. It just feels like something is missing, whether it’s a physical or mental sharpness, it’s just not there, and I hope he can rediscover it quickly.

Alexandre Lacazette worked hard at centre-forward, and did hit the post, but he too has his limitations. There was a moment when he held the ball up very well, we worked it down the left hand side, Kieran Tierney fizzed the ball into the box to … nobody, bar a distant Emile Smith Rowe. A team that doesn’t score enough goals needs a striker who can get into the box, not roam around like a deep-lying 10. That stuff might be useful in terms of build-up, but not when it comes to, you know, actually scoring goals. There are no points awarded for artistic merit on the edge of the opposition’s final third.

It seems fairly obvious why Arsenal are seeking an addition in this area. Aubameyang is 32 and not getting any younger; Lacazette is 30 with one year left and when it comes to scoring is basically a smaller, rounder Giroud (without the aerial presence); and beyond that we have literal kids. I still think that Aubameyang as the striker, without having to do the shuttle runs and chasing full-backs up and down the wing, flanked by more creative players (like Saka, Pepe, Smith Rowe) is the best option we have, but it’s increasingly imperfect.

The team still has issues with creativity, we hardly made a chance for most of the second half yesterday. Smith Rowe was the only one who looked to take on that burden until Bukayo Saka came on, but even then, it wasn’t enough. It’s why, along with a goalkeeper, a creative midfielder is a crucial piece of this summer’s rebuild. Without that signing, I don’t think this team has any chance of making sufficient improvement.

The fact is, we went into yesterday’s game with a front three that has never really clicked, with the same players as last season and the season before, and the limitations that have been apparent over the last 24 months were there again. We can’t expect to be better if we keep doing the same things with the same players. It just can’t happen. You can’t win the Grand National on a mule.

Transfers

The need for more is obvious. Not just based on yesterday, but pre-season as a whole. Asked about it, Arteta said:

What we have is what we have to maximise, and worrying about things that we don’t have at the moment, there is no point. My energy is only on the players we have, make them better, and make them a better threat and win matches.

Asked about a new goalkeeper, he said:

I repeat myself. We train with the players we have available, we are trying to do the right things to improve the team in the areas that are needed. At the moment we have come so far and the window is still open.

To me he sounds a bit frustrated that more hasn’t happened. Whatever you think of Arteta, he made it clear more than once last season that he saw investment in quality players as a key part of improvement, and while there have been some arrivals, we’re still light in a couple of key areas.

His heart must have been in his mouth yesterday when Bernd Leno went down after a challenge, because one kick, one sprain, one muscle tear, one dickhead shoving the keeper while he’s in the air causing him to land awkwardly and injure his knee, and Arsenal are in big, big trouble.

Of course he’s got to take his share of the responsibility, he is the manager after all, but it’s the Technical Director who made it clear he is the point of contact for all transfer business at the club, and so far he’s been found wanting this summer. We can judge the work at the end of the window, but the start of the season is an appropriate time to take stock too, and unless something happens this week, it’s worrying.

Plenty for Edu to sort out when he gets back from his luxury cabin at Butlin’s.

Joe Willock

As per David Ornstein, Arsenal are set to sell Joe Willock to Newcastle for a fee north of £20m.

There are many players I’d rather sell before him, but given we haven’t been able to sell anyone else, when an offer like this comes along your hand is forced somewhat. I have a gut feeling this is one we might regret, a bit more Emi Martinez than Alex Iwobi, and given the way the market is operating I hope we have all kinds of sell-on/buy back clauses attached.

The fact is, if we’d been able to shift Willian, Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah, Cedric, Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles – players who I think we’d prefer to sell – we could, at the very least, be more demanding about Joe Willock, or even keep him as a good squad option. But our failure in that department means we have little choice but to accept a good offer when it comes in.

And look, it’s a pretty good offer, the Willock’s-stock-will-never-be-higher cohort can’t be unhappy about it, and the reality is that it’s easier to sell players that have shown qualities that other teams want. Even still, it looks like Newcastle were the only ones after Joe, and while I absolutely accept it’s a tough market, I’m still a bit sad to see him go. He’s obviously not going to keep scoring at the rate he did at the end of last season, but I feel like a team which has almost no goal threat from midfield could have used his qualities – even as a kind of late-game, agent of chaos super-sub.

Money talks though.

So a big week ahead before our first game of the season against Brentford on Friday night. Let’s hope we can get busy in the market before then, even selling a couple of players would feel good, but there are gaps in the squad that have to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Let’s see what happens.

James and I will be recording an Arsecast Extra for you this morning. Keep an eye out for the call for questions on Twitter @gunnerblog and @arseblog on Twitter with the hashtag #arsecastextra – or if you’re on Arseblog Member on Patreon, leave your question in the #arsecast-extra-questions channel on our Discord server.

Podcast should be out around lunchtime, so until then, take it easy.

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