It happened in a flash. A surprise. A shock. We knew teams were trying to set up friendlies to gain some form of match fitness without stressing muscles and tendons too quickly, but there hadn’t been anything official planned. Suddenly, word spread like wildfire – Arsenal were playing Charlton Athletic at the Emirates.
On Saturday, Arsenal eased their way to a 6-0 win after the first half saw Lacazette score a rocket of a volley from outside the box and Aubameyang somehow manage to tuck away a goal, despite slipping on the curling finish. With a 2-0 lead at the halfway point, Arteta swapped in an almost entirely new eleven. The second half saw Eddie Nketiah score a hat trick and Joe Willock tuck away a beautiful one-touch finish from the top of the box into the upper corner.
There is no doubt that the intention of this game was simply for fitness purpose, which is important to remember before racing to conclusions and making hard statements about what this game means for the future. There were more than a handful of people that saw suggestions of Sokratis playing in the right back spot during the second half and were quick to verbalize their anger at it. I’m not saying we won’t ever see Papa playing there given the compact schedule and need for significant rotation, but things within this game need to be taken with a grain of salt.
With all that being said, there are a few points of interest in the match that we can suggest without going so far as to make hardline statements, given this is the first time anyone has seen Arsenal play in months – even if we were only privy to the highlights.
So, without further ado, here are three points of interest I found in the game:
1. Two front threes: Aubameyang, Lacazette, Nelson and Martinelli, Nketiah, Pepe
Prior to the release of a match report or highlights, many people were keen on seeing who made up the “starting lineup”. For anyone who writes about Arsenal or closely follows blogs, you know that, “what’s the predicted starting XI” is one of the most popular questions on the web. Subsequently, when the lineup is selected, a debate often rages. I put “starting lineup” in quotes to make sure you know that I take little from this game’s lineup to suggest that it is definitively what we will see on June 17th when we take the field against Manchester City.
With all that said, I think it is fair to assume that the lineups and tactics we did see during this game are things Arteta will have been very interested in seeing, with the desired intention of it making an appearance at some point during the run-in. With this in mind, both halves’ front threes of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Nelson and Martinelli, Nketiah, and Pepe are interesting to consider.
We know Pepe is filled with flips, tricks, and flair and there is little doubt that he can whip in a ball or run at a defender in the final third, but he has been scrutinized over his lack of positional rigidity and discipline on the defensive end. Reiss Nelson offers Arteta someone more willing to do the defensive work, willing to keep his heels on the sideline, and when he does receive the ball, is often a little more direct about getting to the endline to serve a ball in. Given that Pepe played in the second half, I think it is fair to assume there is nothing wrong with him health-wise, but clearly Arteta wanted to see more of Nelson alongside Auba and Lacazette.
The reverse of that is seeing the younger core of Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, and Nicolas Pepe play together. I don’t think it would be a stretch to believe Arteta is interested in giving time for those three to jell together and gain chemistry with the question marks that surround Aubameyang and Lacazette’s time at Arsenal. Good to see both trios result in goals.
2. Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the midfield
In the highlights on the first half, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is clearly visible in the midfield alongside Guendouzi and Mesut Ozil. Many will know that Maitland-Niles started off great when Arteta was first brought on board, but quickly fell out of favor after Hector Bellerin returned and Maitland-Niles openly announced his aversion to playing in the backline. At the weekend, we got a brief view of a new potential midfield three.
To assume this means that AMN is out of Arteta’s bad books and is re-energizing his career may be too far, but again, with the need for a lot of squad rotation in the next few months, it presents an intriguing option. Could Ainsley Maitland-Niles occupy a role next to Xhaka as a box-to-box midfielder? Could we see him take up the job as a ball-winning, defensive midfielder, given Kieran Tierney needs less defensive support than Saka and left-footed Pablo Mari is potentially capable of shifting to his left to cover that void? This would mean there is less ground for a number six to cover and the midfield can be more expansive.
There is definitely not enough information here to confirm this or identify what Arteta’s intensions are, but there were plenty of Gunners happy to see Maitland-Niles back on the field.
3. Kieran Tierney back in the side
It has been a year of frustration and injury for Kieran Tierney, but the glimpses of him that fans have gotten showcase the type of asset he can be to the team. He brings a solid defensive presence in the defensive third, a willingness and ability to overlap and get into the attack, as well as, an ability to have those attacking efforts result in great service and dangerous opportunities. However, his absence paved the way for Bakayo Saka to bloom and stake his own claim. This has led to some relatively split opinions amongst fans about how to set up the team once Tierney was fully fit. Tierney or Saka? Both with Saka in on the left wing?
This weekend we saw Tierney back in the side, get himself an assist on Aubameyang’s goal, and complete some great steps toward a return. I, myself, certainly believe he should be the future plan for our left back role and if it can allow Bakayo Saka opportunities to be involved in the midfield – even better. Saka has been incredible this year, but if Tierney can offer us an opportunity to need less midfield coverage in the attack, allowing for more freedom for our midfield to be involved in creating chances, while still protecting our backline, sign me up. We certainly have no definite idea of Arteta’s plans, but between Arteta’s interview with Ian Wright where he said Kieran’s “attitude, commitment, his willing – it’s incredible” and this weekend’s match, we can see Arteta is very interested in the potential opportunities that are unlocked with Tierney in the side.
I want to make sure that I stress the point that this game’s priority was fitness, first and foremost, which is why these are simply “intriguing points” not true takeaways. With these being very isolated instances, they are more food for thought at this point than anything. But I believe there is value in pointing them out and observing the highlights to note any consistencies we may see if there is a second or third friendly planned. With five substitutions allowed for the rest of the season, Arteta will have a real ability to change things up throughout games and a lot more people with get time and opportunities to make a difference. At the very least, it was great to see them back out there again and it certainly raised my excitement for the official return.
Stay safe, stay well.