Yesterday, Arsenal played their second, secret friendly in preparation for the long-awaited resumption of the Premier League season against Brentford FC. It is expected to be their final friendly before taking the field against Manchester City, despite the poor result. It won’t have been the ideal finish to their two-game preseason, but having gained additional fitness, added playing time for players recently promoted to the first team, and gotten players back to playing together again, Arteta will have to believe his team has done as much as they can, given the three weeks they were granted to prepare.
After Joe Willock opened the scoring toward the end of the first half to put Arsenal in the lead 1-0, the wheels fell off in the 2nd. The final 30 minutes of the 2nd half to be exact. Brentford would draw level at 1-1 only to have Alexandre Lacazette get his name on the scoresheet with a nice combination of technical and physical play inside the box to settle a ball, swivel, and shoot. At 2-1, with a chance to push forward, Arsenal instead made a few silly passes and giveaways in bad areas and were shown that even players at the Championship level will punish you for mistakes. Brentford quickly scored a second equalizer and then the gamer winner. All 5 goals in the game, Arsenal’s two and Brentford’s three, were very nice finishes. You can watch the highlights through Arsenal or YouTube.
While it should be known that the point of the game was to increase levels of fitness for the squad and allow them to assimilate back into match form — especially those coming back from injuries — we can still identify a few things from the game that are “intriguing points”.
Saka in the lineup but in the midfield 3
It didn’t take people long to noticed that Saka was not a major feature in the first friendly versus Charlton Athletic. With an initial attacking selection of Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Nelson in the first half, and Martinelli, Nketiah, and Pepe for the second half, Saka didn’t really break into the front line. This time around, against Brentford, Saka’s name was on the teamsheet but amongst the midfield three alongside Willock and Ceballos with Tierney still occupying his left back role.
It’s an interesting prospect for Arsenal’s young star who has bloomed this year on the left side of the field, making waves as he overlapped Aubameyang in the attack on his way to 9 assists, 3 goals, and droves of created chances. It was enough to earn him the deserved opportunity to play in the midfield… but playing in the center of the park comes as a bit of a surprise.
Playing on the left side of what appeared to be a flat-three in a 4-3-3, Bukayo Saka looked to bring his work rate, passing, and silky dribbling to a new area. It’s an interesting concept given the potential shift within Arsenal’s formation and playing style that is predicted. Arteta has often been cited as preferring a 4-3-3 over the 4-2-3-1 with a designated #10, attacking midfielder that Arsenal currently play. To make this shift, we would likely have to change the roles of the midfield players to a more box-to-box style of play, likely with one central defensive player in a #6 role.
Playing Saka central could have simply been an attempt to get as many people on the field as possible, which one can hardly blame Arteta for, but with Tierney seemingly earning his place back as the starting left back and Arteta determined to keep Aubameyang on the left wing, finding space for Saka could be an interesting challenge. Definitely something to keep eyes on.
2 very nice goals from Willock and Lacazette, again
If there are two players in the squad that every Arsenal fan will love to see consistently scoring – its Lacazette and Willock. While many fan’s patience will have run thin when it comes to Lacazette, seeing him put the ball in the back of the net two games in a row will settle some of the nerves heading into the resumed season. Lacazette has struggled to score or come close to the level of production that many fans will expect from a player of his caliber, resulting in a large contingency wishing to see his time on the field drastically reduced.
Arteta seems to be determined to make the Aubameyang-Lacazette combination work despite these struggles, which means Lacazette needs to contribute where it counts. As a striker, that’s on the offensive end. He offers workrate and often leads the pressing line, but has struggled to hold up play with the ball at his feet to distribute consistently, and 9 goals (all competitions) won’t have satisfied many. His form dipped, his confidence was low, but given the time off for this break, fans will hope he can finish the season strong.
Joe Willock scoring on the other hand, will excite fans for a very different reason. Arsenal’s central midfield has been notoriously poor this year in contributing goals with 2 on the season in the Premier League. With Ozil seemingly likely to move on from the club at the end of his contract (2021), there is a major need for a midfield overhaul and an injection of scoring threats. Enter Joe Willock.
Willock has been a bit streaky this year, but youthful inconsistency is about the one consistency you can almost always count on in football. He has shown a keen ability to collect and carry the ball, his workrate is great, but he often lacks the final product or vision to pick out the decisive ball. It’s something that comes with time and experience so seeing him add two goals in two games – both on tidy finishes from the top of the box – is a sight for sore eyes. Many consider him to be a very nice fit for a team looking to shift toward a midfield with more box-to-box midfield contributors. This year, when he has played, it often is as a replacement for Ozil’s outright #10 role but shifting the midfield dynamics could allow him to shine in more of an attacking, #8 role.
Certainly, something to keep an eye on. Hard to complain when Arsenal can add goals from players not named Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
3 conceded goals on 3 bad giveaways
Everyone knows that friendlies exist to help teams work out the kinks in their games, shake off the rust in their play, and get on the same mental page again. It’s why teams schedule them before playing games that will adversely affect their season, which is what Arsenal fans will be hoping when they watch the highlights form yesterday’s match. With Manchester City bearing down, and a date with a very technical team quickly approaching, seeing Arsenal struggle as the masters of their own downfall will be tough to watch. All three Brentford goals came off schoolboy errors from players losing the ball in areas and opening up great opportunities to punish us – and Brentford did.
David Luiz played keepy-ups in the midfield only to lose it and expose the backline to a quick counter. It was a very nice finish, but it’s hard to imagine a team like City not scoring as easily if given the same gift. Later, a clearing header from Kolasinac found Lacazette who came back deep to help relieve pressure as an outlet, only to fail to hold up the ball, get pinched 30 yards out, and see Brentford immediately bury their second equalizer. Lacazette takes 5 touches in his efforts to settle the ball while holding off a defender. He lost the ball straight to a Brentford forward who simply took a touch into space and slotted home a second.
Finally, Ainsley Maitland-Niles let a ball run across his body from within Arsenal’s own box only to be crunched and punished by Brentfords midfield who was quick to pounce on the lackadaisical control. Again, the ball fell to the opposition who took 3 steadying touches and curled home the winner with a finish that Emi Martinez (subbed on in the 60’) could hardly do anything about.
It was sloppy play and the type of play that will drive a coach like Arteta mad to see as a midfielder himself. Three errors, in three bad places, leading to three goals. It’s efficient from Brentford, but hard to see a better team like City not taking similar advantages. One week to tighten up the screws and get ready for a match that counts.
I don’t intend to go into too much detail, but in looking back at the previous friendly to identify some consistencies with this game in an attempt to identify anything we may see when matches resume – two of my three “intriguing points” carried through. We saw Tierney retain his spot as the starting left back, a promising sign that he will likely resume that role, and we saw Maitland-Niles get another opportunity to play in the midfield.
There is limited footage of how it went from Ainsley, but the error leading the Brentford’s third goal doesn’t bode well. Not enough to fully pass judgment, but we can still assume that Arteta is in fact interested in seeing what he can offer our midfield with his combination of midfield and defensive experience.
We saw Arteta again change up the front 3 twice, which tells us that he is looking to give time to a variety of combinations up top in his quest to find the right formula. One would imagine he has a preferred combo, but there certainly could be room for trial and error with the remaining games if the many outcomes outside of Arsenal’s control don’t fall their way and chances of reaching the Champions League become unobtainable.
6 days left!