Last season Arsenal shocked most of the footballing world by going on a title run. This season they have arguably shocked the world even further by dismantling a key part of what made that team so good.
In selling Granit Xhaka and bringing in someone to replace Thomas Partey, Arsenal have essentially removed two thirds of a midfield that was five points shy of winning the Premier League last season. Mikel Arteta has made it clear that Partey is still very much part of his plans for this season, but the MetLife Stadium played to host the debut outing of what we expect to be the Gunners’ first choice midfield trio this coming campaign – Declan Rice, Kai Havertz and Martin Odegaard.
On paper that it’s hard to think of a more exciting trio. Rice is Arsenal’s club-record signing and most exciting addition in arguably decades, Odegaard has finally delivered on his child prodigy potential to become one of the best players in Europe, and Kai Havertz is hoping to follow in those footsteps. Still though people have their reservations.
These revolve primarily around the balance in the middle of the park. With Partey situated deeper and Odegaard more offensively focused last season, Xhaka served as a perfect makeweight between the two, capable of contributing to the attack, while also providing the defensive security that enabled Arsenal to attack with freedom. With Odegaard and Havertz in front of Rice, Arsenal are ceding a portion of that perfect blend in order to go for an even more offensive approach. It’s great that Arteta feels emboldened enough to be so front-footed as he seeks to top the Premier League this season, but it does come with some risk.
In their first outing against a potential rival for the title this coming campaign. the new-look Arsenal midfield did little to settle those nerves. Time and again during the first half the Gunners found themselves running towards their own goal as Manchester United simply pinged the ball over their attempt at a high press. With Havertz and Odegaard so far up the pitch Rice was left stranded trying to deal with the United counter. This was shown perfectly in the first goal where Tom Heaton’s ball out to Kobbie Mainoo drew Rice out wide, leaving Bruno Fernandes plenty of space to unleash a shot as Havertz struggled to get back in time.
Arteta himself was willing to admit that this test drive had not gone as well as he might have hoped. “When they play 55 times together, it will be better, it will flow better, they will understand each other better and we will be more dominant,” the Spaniard said in his post-match press conference. “But things take time to glide and we have to respect that. But I saw a lot of positive things, things I really like much more than the game that we won although the result is very different.”
Patience is probably a luxury Arteta has earned himself given the transformative effect he has had on Arsenal since his arrival in 2019. But for the first time in a while there were murmurings of doubt at how the Spaniard plans to set up his side next season. Arteta will be hoping with time that he can weed out the seeds of concern that may be coming to blossom after this first showing.
Clashes between heavyweight names can often fail to pack a punch when they take place in preseason. Erik ten Hag though wasn’t having any of that. “We don’t play friendly games,” the Dutchman said ahead of the match in New Jersey. You don’t say Erik…
For the second game in a row Bukayo Saka and Eddie Nketiah were on the end of some hefty challenges from opposition defenders. Saka in particular was targeted by an appalling challenge from Lisandro Martinez that prompted the usually mild-mannered Martin Odegaard into a furious rage as he quickly shoved the Argentinian defender to remonstrate against what he had just done to his teammate.
Speaking after the game, Mikel Arteta would not rise to questioning over United’s physical approach. “They are here to compete and to win as we are,” he told football.london . “It’s the job of the referee to stop it.”
He was however, willing to go into the message that such opposition treatment sends to his players. “You asked me yesterday about how difficult or easy the season will be,” he said. “It’s going to be more difficult, more challenging. The level and the preparation of every team is excellent.”
As bona fide big boys rather than surprise title challengers, Arsenal now have a target on their backs. The Gunners are seen as a scalp in a way that perhaps had diminished during their darker days. Teams are going to come up with new ways to stop them, and more aggressive tackles like Martinez’s are the type we may have to come to expect.
On top of that Arsenal were taught a lesson in how brutally any errors will be punished in what Arteta has already predicted will be the best Premier League yet. The game had been relatively even with the Gunners arguably shading it until Aaron Ramsdale failed to stop Bruno Fernandes saveable shot. Gabriel’s miskick then allowed Jadon Sancho in behind for the second and the game was gone.
There are often question marks over how much you can learn from preseason. After what has been a dreamy summer so far for Arsenal though, this rude awakening in New Jersey may have been just what they needed to realise what they’re up against this year.
Smith Rowe SZN?
With all the focus on Thomas Partey’s late arrival to the US tour, Emile Smith Rowe showing up to the party has gone slightly under the radar. His cameo at MetLife Stadium was the kind to make sure people knew he had arrived.
The 22-year-old is a man on a mission. Having not started a single game in any competition last season he is determined to put that right. Part of the reason he was so keen to go away with the England under-21s this summer was to remind everyone what he can do. With two goals and an assist en route to winning the Euros in Georgia he did just that.
His display in New Jersey was not one of a man happy with resting on his laurels though. Instantly Smith Rowe began hounding around the pitch trying to win the ball back. In what was a largely forgettable second half, the Hale Ender’s cameo stood out. It wasn’t necessarily that there were any individual moments, but it was rather the way the whole tempo of the Arsenal team seemed to go up a gear once he was introduced.
This is the exact kind of reaction Arteta would have been hoping for from the man who arguably turned the tide of his Arsenal project back on Boxing Day in 2020. It seems as though Smith Rowe will be primarily competing with Kai Havertz for the starting central midfield birth alongside Martin Odegaard this season, and speaking after the game the 22-year-old’s reaction to that was refreshing.
“I am at a big club,” he said. “If I didn’t have competition, there would be no point. I have to push myself every day in training. It is tough. I need to keep working hard and believing in myself.”
It would have been easy for Smith Rowe to throw his toys out of the pram after he was quite harshly overlooked at times last season. Instead though he has reacted positively to the disappointment and already looks dead set on making up for lost time.
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