Arsenal warmed up for the start of the season with a 6-0 rout of Lyon and a 1-0 victory over Wolfsburg in the Emirates Cup last weekend. Ramsey, Ozil and Oxlade-Chamberlain were the sharpest first-team players while Iwobi and Reine-Adelaide made the biggest impression among the youngsters.
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Drawing any conclusion from a pre-season tournament can be tricky. I thought Wilshere and Bellerin were ready for the first team after watching them play in 2009 and 2014 respectively. And I was right. But last summer, I also thought Sanogo and Chambers would make a significant contribution. And I was wrong.
On Saturday, the Gunners were clinical against Lyon, scoring two goals from set pieces and four from counterattacks. Wolfsburg proved harder to crack on Sunday until a through ball from Reine-Adelaide made the difference. Arsenal also kept clean sheets against European sides which finished second in their respective domestic leagues.
The Gunners limited Lyon to three chances. The French team could have opened the scoring in the 12th minute when Lacazette fed N’Jie, who outpaced Mertesacker in a 10-yard race only to shoot straight at Martinez. Mertesacker may be our most reliable centerback but his lack of pace will always remain an issue in one-on-one situations. Then Lyon twice attempted to hit Arsenal on the fast break, but Martinez punched away Lacazette’s curling shot in the 44th while N’Jie fired wide in the 54th.
Wolfsburg was a different kind of threat. The German team forced Cech into fine saves with long-range strikes from Rodriguez in the 60th and Guilavogui in the 62nd. Wolfsburg also exposed Arsenal’s poor defending on corners with chances for Trasch in the 19th and Klose in the 38th.
The Emirates Cup is an opportunity for the manager to make some experiments. Wenger was quite conservative at the back, starting Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs and Debuchy against Lyon before switching to Paulista, Chambers, Monreal and Bellerin against Wolfsburg. In midfield, the manager proved a bit more daring by pairing Coquelin with Ramsey against Lyon and then relying on Arteta and Cazorla to protect the back four against Wolfsburg.
I think it makes sense to find alternative options to the Coquelin-Cazorla duo in case of injuries or simply to rotate. The partnership between Coquelin and Cazorla is definitely an upgrade over the Arteta-Ramsey duo that was Wenger’s top pick throughout the 2013-14 season. In hindsight, playing Ramsey next to Arteta helped the Wales midfielder break forward and score goals, but it also gave less protection to our defense.
The manager kept babysitting Ozil’s psyche by starting the Germany playmaker in both games. Cazorla played the last 30 minutes in the hole against Lyon while Wilshere took over the playmaking duties against Wolfsburg after Ozil was substituted at halftime. Rosicky, another No. 10 option, did not participate in the Emirates Cup as he is still recovering from a knee injury picked up with the Czech Republic team.
Opportunity on the left wing
Up front, Wenger stuck to the basics by starting Giroud against Lyon and Walcott against Wolfsburg with Akpom making a brief cameo in the centerforward role. On the right wing, the Ox got the nod against Lyon while Wilshere showed his versatility against Wolfsburg. The most interesting decisions, however, were made on the left wing. The manager started Iwobi against Lyon and Reine-Adelaide against Wolfsburg.
That was a very smart move from Wenger because we might be in trouble on the left wing this season. Sanchez will be back in training only next weekend and won’t play before the end of August. Welbeck is still recovering from a knee injury picked up in April and his fitness could be a question mark this season. That means there could be an opportunity on that left wing.
Of all the youngsters, I would say Iwobi is the one closer to the first team. He’s more integrated into Arsenal’s passing game than Akpom and could have an impact similar to Gnabry in the 2013-14 season. Despite his young age, Iwobi proved quite strong in challenges and showed a good work ethic, tracking back when the Gunners lost possession and passing the ball when a teammate was in a better position to shoot.
Making a splash at 17
Iwobi scored the third goal against Lyon and then had a goal disallowed for a marginal offside. At 19, Iwobi still has a lot of room for improvement. He especially failed to react quickly enough at the far post to meet a low cross from the Ox, a typical rookie mistake. But he’s definitely an interesting option off the bench.
The 17-year-old Reine-Adelaide was the big surprise of the tournament. Arsenal signed him from French club Lens this summer for a reported fee of 2.5 million euros. That’s a significant amount of money for a player who was virtually unknown a few weeks ago. But then, you have to remember that Lens has a good football academy where players like Kondogbia and Varane grew up.
Reine-Adelaide replaced the Ox in the 71st minute against Lyon. What I saw then was a very raw player with great dribbling skills but also poor decision-making. He skipped past two defenders in the 87th to feed Akpom, who hit the post.
The manager wasn’t put off by Reine-Adelaide’s flaws and decided to hand him a start against Wolfsburg. The teenager killed a chance in the second minute by holding onto the ball too long. He also showed poor judgment by attempting to dribble on the edge of his own area in the 15th. And Monreal was not really happy about Reine-Adelaide’s poor defensive contribution on the left flank.
Akpom’s disappointing performance
What saved Reine-Adelaide from disaster was his technique. He dribbled past a defender to send Walcott clean through on goal in the 50th. Walcott flicked the ball past Benaglio with the outside of his right boot for the winner. Eight minutes later, Reine-Adelaide delivered another through ball for Walcott but Benaglio quickly came off his line to knock the ball away.
Reine-Adelaide’s footwork in tiny spaces is outstanding and similar to some of the trickery displayed in futsal games. But I don’t think that he’ll be involved with the first team this season. He really needs to improve his defensive skills and reading of the game at the academy before possibly being promoted to the U19 team and shining in the NextGen Series.
Among the youngsters, the biggest disappointment came from Akpom. In both games, he came off the bench in the second half and too often tried to go on his own a la Messi. What’s the point of running at defenders when you are double-teamed and there is no space? Akpom must certainly feel the pressure of becoming the next Sanogo. He hasn’t found the net on loan at Brentford and Coventry City in the 2013-14 season and failed again at Nottingham Forest last season.
The range of Ramsey’s repertoire
Against Lyon, Akpom beat Zeffane along the touchline but then ignored two teammates to drag a low shot straight at the goalkeeper. Akpom’s performance against Wolfsburg the following day was a mixed bag. He found Walcott in the 61st for a curling shot that sailed wide. He then benefited from some good work by Bellerin and Ramsey in the 72nd to spin and fire a low effort saved by Benaglio. His selfishness got the better of him in the closing minutes as he ignored two teammates in the 78th and wasted a counterattack in the 90th.
Among the first-team players, I thought Ramsey looked very sharp at this stage of the season, netting a goal, having an assist and making the penultimate pass for the second and fifth goals against Lyon. Ramsey sometimes overdo things but on Saturday he made all the right choices. His involvement in four goals showed the range of his repertoire.
Ramsey led a counterattack in the 34th by skipping past two players to find Giroud, who held the ball up before releasing the Ox down the right wing for a 2-0 lead. A minute later, Ramsey gave Iwobi a perfect through ball for the third goal. Ramsey then made one of his trademark deep runs in the 38th to slide Ozil’s offering inside the near post. The fifth goal in the 62nd highlighted Ramsey’s importance in our transition game as he picked out Giroud on the edge of the box and the Frenchman set up Ozil for a diagonal half-volley.
Can the Ox fulfill his potential?
The Gunners beat Lyon by a big margin and could have done more damage. Ramsey was the heartbeat of the team, winning the ball in the 15th for a counterattack that ended with an off-target effort from Giroud. The Wales midfielder created two more chances, first with a long ball for Ozil in the 27th, then with a through ball for the Ox in the 49th.
We all know about Ramsey’s abilities. The Gunners can definitely make a strong title bid if Ramsey reverts back to the 2013-14 form that led him to score 10 goals in 23 Premier League games compared to just six goals in 29 games last season.
In the offseason, the manager emphasized the need for more goals from the midfielders. Forwards like Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott should score more than 15 goals each if they stay healthy. Then it will be up to players like Ramsey, Ozil, Wilshere, Cazorla and the Ox to improve our scoring total.
In that regard, I believe 2015-16 should be a breakthrough season for the Ox. He will turn 22 in August and can do much better than one goal in 23 games last season. I sometimes get goose bumps when I see the Ox split a defense with his incisive runs. In terms of potential, he’s very close to Hazard. The big difference is that Hazard has been injury free and has blossomed much faster.
Ozil on the right track
Besides his goal against Lyon, the Ox made an interception that led to the third goal in the 35th. Jenssen was so frustrated with the Ox’s close control that he made a cynical foul the next minute. The Ox also created a chance with a mazy run in the 66th, cutting the ball back for Ramsey, whose lob attempt sailed wide. Eight goals and eight assists in the Premier League would be an ambitious but reasonable target for the Ox this season.
Last season, Ozil had decent stats with four goals and five assists in 22 league games. But I think a player of that quality should definitely aim for 25 goals/assists. To put things in perspective, Ozil had 23 goals/assists in his best season at Real Madrid and Fabregas reached 28 goals/assists in his best season at Arsenal.
Ozil seems on the right track as he scored a goal, had two assists and made the penultimate pass for the third goal against Lyon. The Germany playmaker can still be shy in front of the net. In the 61st, Giroud squared the ball back to Ozil, who refused to take his chance, dallied on the ball before passing it to Iwobi on the left wing.
Not so clinical
In the virtual competition between our two strikers, Giroud was more efficient than Walcott against Lyon. The Frenchman headed wide a Debuchy cross that lacked pace in the 21st. Eight minutes later, Giroud opened the scoring by heading an Ozil free kick into the bottom corner. Walcott replaced Giroud in the 71st and missed a very good chance in the closing minutes. Cazorla sent Walcott clean through on goal but instead of chipping the goalkeeper, Walcott opted for a low strike that was saved.
Walcott redeemed himself against Wolfsburg by scoring the winner. However, his performance was far from clinical. He beat the offside trap in the 21st only to be denied by Benaglio. Three minutes later, Walcott controlled a ball over the top from Wilshere and should have shot with his second touch, but he took an extra touch and lost possession.
Among the first-team players, the biggest disappointment came from Arteta against Wolfsburg. The Spaniard is still able to deliver the occasional through ball, but defensively he’s clearly behind Coquelin in the pecking order. Arteta gave away a cheap free kick by tripping Trasch in the 29th. He then carelessly passed the ball to De Bruyne, who fired over the bar in the 55th. Will the manager have the guts to bench his captain like he did with Vermaelen two years ago?