The Emirates Cup returned this weekend after a gap of two years, and Arsenal duly lifted the trophy despite losing their second game to Sevilla (1-2), thanks to a big win against Benfica (5-2). Although the Cup matches are nothing more than friendlies, they have over the years given us some insight into the way the team is to be set up during a season.
That’s not to say they’re an accurate barometer of how things will pan out – if that were true, Yaya Sanogo would be the hottest striker in the world by now – but the Emirates Cup can give us our first sightings of new players, and some ideas of Wenger’s plans.
With the Community Shield against Chelsea tomorrow looming large, here are 5 talking points from the last weekend’s action, that will have an impact on Sunday and the season to come.
1. The 3-4-2-1 is here to stay
Any thoughts that the back three was only a stopgap solution to salvage last season have been disproved by Wenger’s persistence with it during the whole of pre-season. The Emirates Cup matches continued that trend, and it is clear that Wenger is enjoying experimenting with all the options that the system allows for.
More attackers on the wing
The most obvious experimentation has been with the wing-backs that the formation relies on. Wenger used the Emirates Cup to give opportunities to youngsters Reiss Nelson and Colin Bramall, new boy Sead Kolasinac (more on him later), as well as last season’s wing-backs Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin. Using wing-backs has been allowing Wenger the option of playing at least one if not two additional attack-minded players in each game, and this should help give some of the attacking players in the youth team who would otherwise have not got a chance, the ability to get some valuable playing time as the season progresses. Reiss Nelson is a prime example of that, with his performance against Benfica particularly praiseworthy.
Variations at Centre-Back
The other interesting new development we have witnessed has been the tinkering with the make-up of the back three. Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi are obvious shoo-ins when fit, and the centre-back role has also suited Nacho Monreal and Rob Holding. Holding went off with an injury against Benfica, but Calum Chambers, back from his loan spell at Middlesborough, also looked very comfortable playing in the back-three. Someone who didn’t look entirely comfortable there was Mohamed Elneny, who played in the role against Sevilla. Wenger has said that he doesn’t envisage Elneny playing there long term, but with our regular injury problems (and reports that Chambers may not stay), Elneny may find himself pressed into service. This could actually be to the benefit of the team as he has the technique to take on the role of ball-playing CB, which is a requirement in this formation and one that only Koscielny currently fulfills.
Freeing up the attack
We have to still be careful not to consider this formation a panacea – unless Ozil drops deep centrally like he did against Chelsea in the FA Cup final, our play in the centre of the park often seems a bit disjointed and aimless, as was the case against Sevilla. Regardless, the formation allows more players to thrive, while at the same time freeing up our attackers to do what they do best without worrying about tracking back, which means it suits Wenger’s attacking philosophy – so don’t expect it to go away anytime soon.
2. Walcott could still earn a place in Wenger’s plans
One of the players for whom the change in formation was not good, was Theo Walcott. The 28-year-old Englishman started the season on the right of our old 4-2-3-1 strongly, but despite scoring 10 goals in the Premier League, found himself on the bench after the switch to 3-4-2-1.
Walcott doesn’t have the defensive nous to play as the right wing-back and he is no longer in contention for the central striker role. Which means that the only place that he can hope to play is just behind the number 9. The two spots there were filled by Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, and as long as they are fit, you’d expect them to play.
As a result, Walcott was expected to be on his way out of the club this summer. Instead, he has remained at the club and played a number of preseason games on the right of the 2. This culminated in an excellent performance against Benfica where he bagged two goals and should have had a couple more. His movement to make runs behind the defence was excellent, and gave us a more direct dimension on that side as compared to Mesut Ozil’s interpretation – a good example was the third goal, where his run was picked out by Granit Xhaka and his low cross for Olivier Giroud was diverted into the net for an own goal.
One performance does not a season make, but Walcott showed enough skill, movement and positional awareness (especially for his two goals) to show that he would be an adequate backup to Ozil or Sanchez as well as a good Plan B to get at defences we find difficult to unlock.
3. Kolasinac looks the real deal at LWB but needs to adapt to pace of game
A left wing-back needs to be capable of contributing in the final third, whether by putting in a good cross or pass or providing width on the overlap. Kolasinac’s assist for the first goal and role in the build-up for the second goal against Benfica demonstrated that he has a lot to offer in this role.
Defensively and offensively, his imposing physicality proved a useful asset, and he looks like he could help dominate the left wing for us, which should only help Alexis or whoever else plays as the left forward.
Kolasinac had previously during pre-season played in the back three, and his ability to play there will be useful. However, it would be foolish not to use him on the wing, as he has proven pedigree in that position, providing 7 assists in all competitions and scoring 3 goals in the Bundesliga in 2016-17.
Despite the promise, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kolasinac did lose the ball several times during the game because he took too much time on it. Given this happened against Benfica, whose general play isn’t the most intense, we should be more concerned about it happening in the Premier League, with its significantly higher intensity. Kolasinac will need to be aware that he will not get so much time on the ball, and that he will face significant pressure from opposition players, whether those of Tottenham, Liverpool or even Burnley.
4. Oxlade-Chamberlain is the Central Midfielder that was promised (though not just yet)
The Ox started the Sevilla game as our left wing-back, but eventually switched over to the right side, where he tormented Sevilla’s Mercado, beating him for pace and power, and dumping him to the ground when creating Alexandre Lacazette’s goal.
Chamberlain showed a marked improvement last season and was excellent even then as a right wing-back, yet Wenger has always said he envisions him as a central midfielder. Funnily enough, his performances on the wing showed just how useful a presence he could be in midfield, where we could see him pick up the ball and drive forward with skill and speed, dribbling past and holding off opponents, and dropping the ball off to Ozil or Xhaka or Cazorla to play the clever passes.
Too often last season our central midfield was sluggish and flat-footed, and while the formation switch helped alleviate some of the problems, the lack of dynamism was painfully evident during the game against Sevilla, despite Aaron Ramsey’s best efforts. The Ox could genuinely be the solution to this problem, though an occupational hazard with such a type of player is a higher rate of turnovers.
Which once again highlights the need for a powerhouse midfield presence who can defend solidly and also have good technical skills. Our current options in defensive midfield are not complete enough – Coquelin’s distribution isn’t good enough, while Xhaka lacks pace and isn’t the best at tackling – and we should be asking ourselves why we have not taken more steps to improve our squad in this position.
In the absence of this kind of a player (if only we had looked to sign N’Golo Kante last season, or the season before), we cannot afford to give the Ox a good run at a central midfield spot, in the interests of defensive solidity. Till then, of course, he can and should be given a regular starting berth at wing-back, where he can really shine for us.
5. Wenger needs to settle on a position for Lacazette
The biggest tactical question, of course, is what to do with our record signing, Alexandre Lacazette. The Frenchman has been given the number 9 shirt but has been tried across our three most attacking players, to varying degrees of success.
While fluid forward lines are all the rage these days, there is a danger that not settling on a position for the striker will prevent us from getting the best out of him.
Lacazette only played in the game against Sevilla, and while he did score, it is difficult to pick out any other moment of note from him. It was not entirely clear whether he was the focal point of the attack or Welbeck was, with both swapping positions often. While this was helpful in scoring the goal, it also meant that Lacazette often seemed at a loss as to what to do when he had the ball, and saw him lose it quite often.
One possible solution to the conundrum is to tweak the formation into a 3-4-1-2, letting Ozil float behind a front 2 of Lacazette and Sanchez (with Welbeck used when either isn’t available). This would allow both forwards to make darting runs behind the opposition defence, and give Ozil targets to hit.
If we are to use Lacazette just behind a central striker, he might be better served by playing with Olivier Giroud, rather than Danny Welbeck, who will be able to compensate for Lacazette’s lack of height, and hold up the ball and draw players away from the shorter but quicker Frenchman. Theo Walcott benefitted from this in the game against Benfica, and one would imagine that Lacazette should be a better option than Walcott at this particular job.