In the lead up to the Community Shield and the fast approaching Premier League season, Arsenal got their preseason started against MK Dons. It may not have been the same glamorous trip to Asia or America to play in front of thousands of fans that rarely get the chance, but it is a result that will feel like a positive way to kick off what will be Arteta’s first complete year as Arsenal head coach.
A side composed of a few regulars, a few players that come off the bench, and many young prospects was always going to be the case. Not only because the preseason offers younger players a chance to shine and play alongside first-teamers, but also due to the proximity to the end of the season and some players still coming back from their holidays.
Arsenal’s squad: Leno, Cedric, Saliba, Holding, Tierney, Elneny, Xhaka, Maitland-Niles, Saka, Nketiah, Aubameyang
Bench: Macey, Ballard, McGuinness, Bola, Azeez, Cottrell, Olayinka, Oyegoke, Willock, Lewis, Nelson, Smith Rowe, John Jules
It was a great opportunity to see Saliba make his debut. It was exciting and intriguing to see Aubameyang take the field, despite the club not having formally announced anything about his future. And an interesting twist to see Maitland-Niles take the field amidst rumors of a potential move.
At the end of the day, Arteta’s selection may be dictated by those fit and available more than anything and it certainly produced some positive things to take away.
3-4-3 continues with success
Everyone is well aware that Mikel Arteta would prefer to play in a more attacking, 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 type of formation with a team that has the ability to press, possess, transition, and attack aggressively for 90 minutes. However, to do that, he needs the players and playmakers that make that possible. It’s something that he clearly feels he doesn’t have at the moment and in order to get his best on the field in a formation that supports weaker areas, he needs to look to a different formation. Thus enters the 3-4-3.
With the need to protect a backline not always filled with consistent quality, accommodate the lack of midfield creativity, and maintain three attacking players, the formation switch was made during the restart. It comes with a few problems, including games where the squad lacks creativity and attacking opportunities, but it allows the Gunners to funnel their attack into the channels where they are dangerous, transition into their 5-channel, attacking formation in the opposition’s half, and keep their backline relatively safe from being exposed on the counter or in transition.
Today was much of the same, and it is fair to assume that this weekend against Liverpool will be as well. This allowed Saliba and Tierney to play the outside center back role and since Saliba is more of a true defender, gave Tierney freedom to get forward, which looked great. Their wide positioning in possession pushed the wingbacks Maitland-Niles and Soares into the midfield, and from there is looked a lot like what we saw down the final stretch of last season. But how effective was it?
That depends how you want to look at it. On one hand, Arsenal produced two early goals. The first came from pressuring MK Dons’ defense and forcing a bad turnover, but the second was a great piece of play that started with Saliba, funneled into Soares on the wing, running at the backline, who slotted in Saka with a well-timed run resulting in an easy cutback pass for an Nketiah finish. It was a lovely piece of play and a real positive moment for everyone involved. On the other hand, a cynical person may have noticed that Arsenal weren’t always the most creative, similar to times during the restart, and a Xhaka-Elneny pivot probably isn’t the solution.
However, the real takeaway should be that new people, played in new starting roles, and it produced 2 goals, decent passing and ball movement, some scoring opportunities, and aside from an own goal, denied many attacking opportunities. The entire right side was relatively new. Saliba with his debut, Soares as a wingback has started very little, and Saka on the right wing has not always been the most successful. That side produced a goal almost entirely on their own. Good to see the 3-4-3 still effective and pragmatic and I expect we will see more of it.
William Saliba’s debut
It’s impossible to talk about this game and not mention William Saliba’s debut. I don’t think you will find a single article there and this is hardly different. Anyone that is coming into a team with this amount of buzz, after waiting full season to play due to a loan after purchase, and coming into a position that the team is desperate for quality in, is going to get talked about it – good or bad. Here’s the best part, he was good!
It was a great opportunity for Arteta to hand him his first start with Arsenal in a more relaxed atmosphere and really start to find his feet. I don’t want to say the game meant nothing, but it really didn’t, making it a great opportunity to see him shine with low pressure. Certainly there are, and will be, aspects of Saliba’s game that need work, growth, and maturity, but against MK Dons he was great on the ball, composed, tidy, and started the movement for a goal. In the defense he made the plays when he was asked to, and one of the few times he was slow to read the play and didn’t close a defender down, he used his pace and athleticism to correct himself and make a lovely, well-timed sliding tackle in the box.
It is clear to see why he is so highly touted and how easily he fits the type of defender Arteta wants. As the game shifts to having defenders that offer you defensive and offensive attributes, he is built for the modern game. Obviously MK Dons will not be his most difficult challenge, but he rose the occasion and looked comfortable doing it. Excited to see what is next for him.
Look, by the end of the year – if you aren’t already – you’ll be sick of me saying how solid he is, but I won’t apologize. No matter where he is asked to play – center back, left back, or wingback – he does a fantastic, standout job. Today, more than anything, he showed that regardless of the occasion he gives 100%. Nothing less. Start to finish. Fa Cup Final? Friendly against MK Dons? Yep. What about a first training session when he hardly knows anyone? He went after it so hard, there were reports of tension because he was putting in tackles. Love it.
Tierney is that down to earth, humble, nose to the grindstone guy and it continues to win the hearts of fans. When asked about English football, Tierney said, “For me, going into the first couple of training sessions it was the tempo. Honestly, the first session, I was against (Gabriel) Martinelli. Young boy, I knew he was good. I was like ‘Woah, this is the standard man. He is unbelievable’.”
“The effort and attitude was unreal (from Martinelli). Probably the biggest thing is the technique. I’ve not been gifted with that. All the young boys are unbelievable. Saka and Joe Willock, their technique is incredible man.”
He recognizes what he is, what he isn’t, and plays within his game. Anything he hasn’t been “gifted with”, he finds a different way to achieve it and makes up the gaps with workrate and physical play. Love it and looking forward to a full season from him.
In the second half, Arsenal platooned in their youth players. With 5 subs in the 46th minutes and 5 more in the 62nd minute, the full squad came in as Arteta changed out essentially the whole outfield. It’s the one aspect of the game that some could maybe be a little bit cynical about because there were moments that a few of the younger players will look back on and wish they had shown exactly what they are capable of.
Until the 76th minute when McGuinness headed home a fantastic finish on an attacking set piece (I know, wild, set piece success), many of the young players looked unsettled. I will gladly cut them some slack since it was many of their debuts with the first team, but it’s easy to imagine them wanting to have done more with their 45 minutes.
Here is what was great from them. There was a high level of workrate, good structure, good pressing, and a good ability to win the ball back after losing it. They kept a clean sheet with their half, they harassed Dons, and after they scored, they did manage to settle into things a bit. Seeing the structure and identity of Arteta shine through defensively, despite a few easy giveaways and some tough times in possession, is a great sign. Not only for Arteta and his ability to convey his thoughts to both young and old, but for these young players to have grasped the concept he is looking for and carry it out on the pitch.
I thought Bola and Cottrell looked good. I thought John-Jules had a few nice moments including a time he faced up the defender, shimmied around him and worked a shot – he will just be disappointed he didn’t hit it better after doing the tough part. And I thought Willock and Reiss Nelson were leaders when on the field with youth players, which isn’t the easiest task.
Overall, there are plenty of things for these young players to work on and I am confident if they were introduced at key moments while surrounded by veterans to help them, we would see a different result than 11 of them sent out to play together. I was left with some good thoughts, a few tough moments, but overall I am excited to see some of them continue to stake a claim. Arsenal had two very young players bloom last year. Can two more bloom this year? I want to find out!
There are other positives you can talk about, like being decent on set pieces, and some negatives like Rob Holding’s own goal after being arguable a bit out of position. In the end, it was a team Arsenal should beat and they took care of business, which is something they didn’t always do last year. Adding that consistency to their game will go a long way when it comes to their end of season point tally.
It’s a friendly, it’s a great way to get fitness for the veterans, a little chemistry and confidence heading into the Community shield, and match time for the young players with Mikel on the sidelines. I am keeping this one positive and looking forward to the rest of the preseason.
I enjoyed it, but I would love to know your thoughts. Leave me a comment on the article, on social media, or if you liked the piece subscribe to get notifications whenever I publish pieces. Enjoy your day or evening!