Saturday, September 23, 2023

Training in Baltimore: Gunners beat Everton in second pre-season friendly, Zinchenko thoughts, ‘niggles’

Morning all! Tim here back on duty while Andrew continues to sun himself in Spain. There was a game last night / during the early hours of this morning depending on your timezone as Arsenal defeated Everton 2-0 in Baltimore with first half goals from Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka.

I didn’t stay up to watch the game because, well, because sleep. Short of a formation change or a player tried in a new position, I really don’t think there is anything at all fans can glean from these games when entire teams are changed during the life of the match. They are valuable for players and coaches however.

Though another goal from Gabriel Jesus is certainly very promising and demonstrates the value of getting your business done early if you can. He’s been able to join the team right from the off in pre-season, get himself on the score sheet a couple of times and it’s incredibly valuable that he has already started to build those connections with his teammates.

When I was on the Arsecast Extra with Andrew a couple of weeks ago, I said to look out for Jesus attacking the back post, which is one of his favourite spots and that was the avenue that he benefitted from last night. Bukayo Saka scored three minutes later to double Arsenal’s lead and the benefit of a full pre-season cannot be underestimated for him either. He was comfortably Arsenal’s best player last term with virtually no pre-season at all.

However, there were some worrying noises from Mikel Arteta on injuries. “We have Kieran [Tierney] with a slight problem, we have Emile [Smith Rowe] with a muscular niggle, Tomiyasu as well & Ben [White]. Vieira has a slight problem in his bone, hopefully he will start to train in the next week or so.”

The names Tierney, Smith Rowe and Tomiyasu are particularly worrisome. Tierney’s (more on whom anon) fitness issues are such that Arsenal are trying to spend a lot of money on another left-back. The words “Tomiyasu” and “niggle” have been paired together so often since January that I am starting to wonder whether it’s part of his name.

Smith Rowe too is concerning. He played for England U21s this summer right up until 13th June but still returned on the first day of pre-season training and started the first friendly in Germany on 8th July. It must have been a conscious decision to abbreviate his break and to allow him to play in some fairly trifling U21 fixtures when he is a long way above that level now.

I can only imagine it was a deliberate attempt to build strength after a few seasons now where injuries have prevented him from playing full campaigns at full tilt. This development is, therefore, a bit of a worry but there is another game on Wednesday evening. It might all be precautionary.

The noises on Bukayo Saka’s contract are beginning to sound encouraging, with only terms rather than the player’s willingness to extend appearing to need sorting. “We will try. We both want the same thing. It’s a matter of time,” Arteta said in his post-match press conference.

Elsewhere, I quite enjoyed Mikel Arteta reading Ainsley Maitland-Niles the riot act for a sloppy misplaced pass and, I have to say, it’s a fair insight into why AMN probably hasn’t developed into the midfielder he hoped to be, he has a lot of interesting tools but his passing has always had that lacklustre feel to me.

Away from the trifling business of actual football, on the transfer front things seem to be moving along quickly with a deal to bring Oleksandr Zinchenko to Arsenal. With Lisandro Martinez joining the Ajax regen project at Manchester United, the Gunners have moved quickly to SWOOP for Zinchenko.

The interest in Zinchenko was first reported right at the beginning of the window, so it looks a lot like Arsenal had laid some ground work and were prepared to move quickly having missed out on Martinez. It sounds scarily efficient, doesn’t it? I like the player and versatility seems to be a trait that Arteta really prizes with a lot of his recent targets.

Last week in my column, I wrote about ‘the left pod‘ of the team, which looks like it will change this season. If I were Kieran Tierney I would view this a little ominously (more likely he will view it as a challenge, athletes are weird like that, while the rest of us crave the quiet life, they like doing things like ‘testing their limits’, ‘pushing themselves’ and ‘competing.’ Weirdos).

Martinez is a left-back who can play centre-half while Zinchenko is a left-back who can play in central midfield. There is one position that binds those two targets. I have said that my pet theory is that Arteta wants a left-back who can do “Xhaka things” in that left defensive half space, freeing the team up to opt for a more attacking left-eight when they want to.

It’s why I think Arsenal might have been slow to pull the trigger on Tielemans, I have a hunch that they want a left-back in first and the two pieces are contingent on one another. On the other hand, optionality is clearly a factor here too. If we put the Tielemans interest to one side for a second, this gives Arteta different clubs for different strokes.

It will mean that Arsenal essentially have Tierney, Zinchenko and Xhaka available for the left-back and left-eight positions. Zinchenko can play both of course so we could see a situation where the three rotate between the two positions. Xhaka is a good foil for Tierney because he is good at dropping back into the left-back position to cover Tierney’s forward runs.

But one week might be a Tierney + Zinchenko week, another might be a Zinchenko + Xhaka week and so on. Add Tielemans into that equation and you’re talking options. James conducted an interview with new signing Fabio Vieira (£) in which the Portuguese talked about being a versatile option for Arteta.

I have to say I am enthused by the common sense signings Arsenal have completed and / or are targeting and the move towards players who can operate in different areas of the pitch is an intriguing one. A 25-man squad that covers 50 positions is a stronger one than a 25-man squad that covers 30, if you catch my drift.

The deal for Omari Hutchinson to join Chelsea was also confirmed yesterday, which seems like a strange one in just about every direction. I guess when you consider that Arsenal have Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, Vieira and they targeted Raphinha, there’s quite the blockage for him at Arsenal.

I don’t imagine his way through at Chelsea is much clearer though in truth, especially as Thomas Tuchel seems to hate every single one of the expensively acquired forwards in his squad. Hutchinson (or his PR people) drafted an emotional Instagram message addressed to “the fans.” Given he didn’t play a single minute for the first team, that felt a little overwrought but there you go.

Anyway, that’s it from me until my weekly column on Thursday. Enjoy your Sundays!

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