Pre-Season: Results Don't Matter, Performances Do
Played 5, won 4, drawn 1, lost 0. Arsenal have had a very successful pre-season by all accounts. The results ultimately mean very little because nobody remembers your pre-season wins and losses once the season begins. But it is a great time to assess the players and their performances, as the pre-season provides a good indicator on form and conditioning. Wins are always better than losses, right? Even if they don't really count.
A number of players have given Arsene Wenger a selection headache before Sunday's game. One man in particular looks like he knows this is a make-or-break year for him. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a winger with enormous potential who hasn't quite delivered in terms of consistency, had a magnificent pre-season. He scored a superb Bergkamp-esque chip against Lens and a goal against Chivas that looked like he was being maneuvered by a Playstation controller. He routinely challenged opposition fullbacks, attacking again and again with real confidence, something we haven't seen from him in a while. If he can just stay fit this season, and it's a big if, you have to think Ox could go far. Injuries have been the largest factor to have held him back since he joined in 2011 but he needs to put that behind him now. I'm almost certain he's played his way into the first XI for Sunday's game.
A few youngsters also stepped up their games this summer, putting themselves in the forefront of Arsene Wenger's plans. Alex Iwobi continues to impress since he broke into the first team last season and can hopefully continue to develop in 2016/17 as a dangerous forward. The young Nigerian has quickly become one of my favourite players and his mixture of pace, strength and technique make him one to watch this season. His friend and fellow forward Chuba Akpom also took his opportunity this pre-season. 4 goals in 5 games is a decent return for the Englishman and he seems intent on making it impossible for the boss to loan him out again. I doubt Arsene would dare start Akpom up front against Liverpool but then again this is a man who played Yaya Sanogo in key Champions League games a couple of years ago. So who knows, Akpom stands a chance and did everything he possibly could to force his way into that number 9 slot. I hope we don't loan him out again this year but if the club can't add that big-name striker the media and the fans crave, then Akpom suddenly becomes even more integral to this squad and could see significant playing time.
The new boys impressed as well. Granit Xhaka, fresh off a wonderful Euro 2016 campaign with Switzerland, looks like he's been part of this team for years. He's slotted into the Arsenal squad seamlessly and could be a fixture in the heart of the midfield for the next decade. He's surely earned a starting spot ahead of Sunday. Rob Holding, the young English defender recently purchased from Bolton, also acquitted himself well. I'm certain Arsene Wenger never intended to rush him along so quickly but with the recent long-term injuries to both Per Mertesacker and Gabriel, and with Laurent Koscielny only just returning to training after Euro 2016, it looks like Holding will be thrown into the fire on Sunday. With only a couple of fit centre backs to choose from, I expect the boss might have no choice but to play Holding, probably alongside Calum Chambers. A makeshift defence if you've ever seen one.
Where Are The Reinforcements?
Which leads me on to my next topic: transfer activity, or rather, the lack of. It's been well publicised how our rivals have spent millions on new additions and Arsenal have not. Yet with Gabriel getting hurt on Sunday in the friendly victory against Manchester City, the defence in particular looks especially thin. Shkodran Mustafi, the 24 year-old Valencia centre back, has been linked with Arsenal all summer but now his move to North London seems to have taken another level of importance. If Arsene seriously wants him, then the club really must secure his transfer as soon as possible. He's a natural replacement for Mertesacker in the long-term but short-term, we need him desperately for Sunday.
And then of course we have the endless quest for a new striker. As every day passes without news of a striker joining the club, the level of anger among fans increases. Gonzalo Higuain has joined Juventus since my last post, for a fee of over £70 million. I was quite keen on Arsenal getting him but not at that price. He'll score a lot of goals for Juventus I'm sure, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that price is ridiculous for a player of his age. Did you see him against West Ham at the weekend? Dude did not look like a £70 million athlete...
The striker most likely to join the club before the end of the month would be Alexander Lacazette. Arsenal have already had at least one bid rejected by Lyon, who know this is a seller's market so can pretty much demand what they want for him. I'm afraid that if Arsenal really want him, then they will be forced to overpay. I reckon a bid somewhere between £45-50 million might persuade Lyon to part with the French forward but it's anyone guess right now if they will go through with it. Lacazette to Arsenal has become the biggest transfer 'will-they-won't-they' of the summer now Pogba has finally joined Man United. I still feel he could be a very good signing but the club have now backed themselves into a corner with their inability to add a striker earlier in the summer. If they fail to bring him to the club before the deadline, I feel Arsene and the club are going to come in for quite a lot of criticism when Giroud and Walcott start misfiring.
Other than Mustafi and Lacazette, all of the other rumours surrounding potential transfers have gone very quiet recently. I haven't heard Riyad Mahrez's name linked with us in some time and Mauro Icardi's flirtation with Arsenal seems to be have been exactly that, just a wink to get fans agitated once more. The most interesting rumour of late has been West Brom's Jonny Evans being linked to us, as an emergency signing to cover our depleted centre back corps. I can't admit to being very excited about the prospect of his arrival but I don't think he would be a terrible transfer by any means, so long as the fee was reasonable. But when you see a player of Ashley Williams' quality move for £12 million, you have to think that maybe settling for Evans isn't the greatest move.
Who Would I Pick For Sunday?
Here would be my preferred first XI against Liverpool.
Bellerin - Chambers - Holding - Monreal
Xhaka - Cazorla
Oxlade-Chamberlain - Ramsey - Iwobi
Bench: Ospina, Gibbs, Bielek, Coquelin, Elneny, Campbell, Walcott
With Giroud unavailable up front, I have opted for Sanchez who I could see as more of a false 9, linking with the midfield often. He's easily our most dangerous forward so having him as the primary goal threat makes some sense. I would deploy Ramsey in attacking midfield, letting him off the leash as such, because I thought he was very effective for Wales in that role during Euro 2016. To be honest, the front four could rotate positions a lot e.g. Iwobi could swap with Sanchez or Ramsey, Ox could swap with Ramsey or Iwobi. There's a lot of versatility in that attack. I am concerned about the defence but I can't see Arsene rushing Koscielny back into action. Alternatively Monreal could fill in at centre back and Gibbs could play left back, but I'm not hugely keen on playing Monreal out of position, despite his adequate job he did there a year or so ago.
Now all we can do is wait and see if Arsenal can add to the squad prior to Sunday's match. Even if we don't, I will still be shaking with excitement on my way to the stadium. Liverpool are always a big opponent and it will be the biggest game I've ever been to in person. Fingers crossed I leave the Emirates a happy Gooner!
Thanks for reading.