Saturday, February 4, 2023

Pre-season surprises

Hello everyone, welcome to Friday.

There is an actual game of football today as Arsenal take on FC Nurnberg at 16.30. I assume that this will be a game of two halves. There was a big difference between the starting XI against Ipswich:

Bernd Leno, Hector Bellerin, Ben White, Pablo Mari, Cedric, Thomas Partey, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Sambi Lokonga, Nicolas Pepe, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson

and the second half team:

Arthur Okonkwo, Reuell Walters, Alex Kirk, Zach Awe, Lino Sousa, Matt Smith, Salah Oulad M’hand, Charlie Patino, Omari Hutchinson, Folarin Balogun, Marcelo Flores.

After a week of training in Germany though, with players like Kieran Tierney, Gabriel, Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel Jesus, Gabriel Gabrielson-Gabbington III, and others involved, there’s a bit more depth – while some of the young players involved at the weekend aren’t there. Alex Kirk, for example, has joined Ayr United on loan for the upcoming season.

As ever, pre-season games are primarily about conditioning, getting the players ready for the new campaign, but also a way for the manager to work with the pieces he has to prepare for the important games. I’m trying to remember any pre-season where we did something unusual that actually continued when the Premier League kicked off. I’m typing this ‘out loud’ as a way to jog my memory and would you believe it I’ve done it.

Kolo Toure at centre-half.

That was an usual deployment of a player who had been used here, there and everywhere by Arsene Wenger. I’m sure I remember him playing in both full back positions, wide midfield, and as a late sub in certain games, but in the summer of 2003, having just lost out on the title to Manchester United in painful fashion, the manager had to think about how to wrestle back a trophy that should have been ours that year (that Bolton game still gives me a pain in my heart when I think about it).

I’m trying to imagine what it would have been like nowadays with the glare of social media and the endless discussion about what went wrong. The demands to spend big to ensure we ‘showed ambition’ would have been off the charts after such a painful denouement to the previous campaign. It was a summer when we were linked with a highly rated young Portuguese winger called Cristiano Ronaldo, and we’d agreed a fee with Sporting only for United to gazump us by offering about twice as much again to bring him to Old Trafford. They also signed Louis Saha from Fulham, as well as ‘hot prospects’ Kleberson and Eric Djemba-Djemba.

Meanwhile, David Seaman left for Man City, Francis Jeffers – our fox in the box but more like a fox with the pox – was loaned back to Everton, while Giovanni van Bronckhorst went to Barcelona (some say as sweetener to keep them quiet because of how angry they were about losing Cesc Fabregas). That meant we needed a goalkeeper and many were linked that summer.

Off the top of my head I remember serious talk of Santiago Canizares from Valencia, Turkish international Rustu Recber, Sebastian Saja (did he actually join us for a bit then go somewhere else?), and I’m sure there were others including the ubiquitous Sebastian Frey. In the end, we paid Borussia Dortmund £1.5m for Jens Lehmann, signed an 18 year old Philippe Senderos from Servette, and brought in a promising 17 year old left-back called Gael Clichy. That was the extent of our window in 2003.

Now, it’s not as if Arsenal weren’t replete with talent, because you all know the names very well, but the centre of the defence was an issue. Martin Keown was not getting any younger, and Pascal Cygan was considered a weak link – even if I think we’ve had many central defenders since then who were far less accomplished (and I am doing my utmost be diplomatic here). I vaguely remember Philippe Mexes being linked, a Dutch lad called Kevin Hofland, and there was a fairly reliable story at the time that suggested serious interest in a young Chelsea centre-half called John Terry because of their ongoing financial issues, but then they got bought by a bastard so that fell by the wayside.

All of which is a long way of saying that against Rangers and Celtic in pre-season games, Kolo Toure impressed the manager when he was played at centre-half, and the next season – alongside Sol Campbell – he was part of a team which didn’t lose a single game. So, when you see Mikel Arteta play Nuno Tavares as the ‘left 8’ against Chelsea in the USA in a couple of weeks time, give the manager the benefit of the doubt. Haha.

Right, let’s leave it there for this morning. As ever there’s a brand new Arsecast for you, in which I talk to Rob Kelly, the former Digital Content Manager at, about the work he did there, social media, the changing face of content, transfer announcements and lots more. All the links you need are below, enjoy!


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