This may shock everyone here, but I am so, so far from knowing a dang thing about Arsenal in the International Champions Cup. Fortunately, though, writing for SB Nation provides us with some opportunities to correct such shortcomings, and that’s where Mister Manager Paul de Bruler of the Short Fuse comes in. He and his crew do a really fantastic job of covering the Gunners, and they’re also really nice. Check out the site and follow them on Twitter if you’re interested in the red half of the North London Derby.
Viola Nation: Obviously, it’s just the preseason, but how did Arsenal look in that 2-1 win over Bayern Munich? Was it as disjointed as you’d expect from a team just getting out of the summer break and featuring a lot of kids wearing squad numbers in the 50s, or did things seem pretty cohesive?
Paul de Bruler: Suprisingly, it wasn’t! I would never look at a first preseason game (Arsenal played against Colorado Rapids on Monday before the ICC, but that was all kids and reserves, playing the reserves of one of the worst teams in MLS, so) and say “this team is going to be good”, but Arsenal played most of their first choice XI in the first half, and they looked pretty decent. There’ll be more on the kids in a later answer, but the short version is a lot of them are on the cusp of a breakthrough, so they all played their butts off and it showed. Arsenal view defense as somewhat of a free-form improvisation exercise more than an actual system, but on Wednesday at least, the offense looked like it might be in good shape when the season starts.
VN: What sort of tactical approach do you expect from Unai Emery? Do you think he’ll stick with 4 at the back or move to the back 3? Will he want his forwards to pressure high up the pitch or (especially given the heat and humidity in Charlotte at 5:00 PM) sit back a little bit more?
PdB: Do you like cutbacks? Lots of cutbacks? Cutbacks that start from the left side? Then some that start down the right? If so, you’re in for a treat! That’s Arsenal’s party trick under Unai Emery, and how one feels about that is a reasonable analog for how one feels about Emery as Arsenal manager. I honestly don’t know what he’ll want to do in this game - he experimented a fair bit in last year’s preseason, so I would imagine that he’ll do the same this summer, and roll out whatever defensive shape he thinks the team needs to work on the most. I know that’s kind of a non-answer, but Emery hasn’t said much about what he wants to do.
I think given the heat and the stage of preseason we’re in, they’ll probably sit back a bit - it was obvious on Wednesday that most of the squad isn’t fully in game shape yet. Nobody’s, like, working off summer fat or anything that drastic, it’s just been a while since these guys have gone a full 90 at game speed, and I doubt they’ll want to push too hard in a southern summer steam bath.
VN: What are the strongest areas of the pitch for this Gunners side? Who’re the stars? Are there any weak links, be they areas on the field or individual players?
PdB: As far as stars, look no further than the front. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are Arsenal’s attack, and it’s a good one. Aubameyang was in a three way tie for the Premier League’s Golden Boot (no idea which third he got, I’m guessing maybe the toe part?) with 22 league goals last season (31 in all competitions), and Lacazette bagged 13 (19) of his own.
Weak links, you say? Allow me to introduce you to Arsenal’s defense. Or “defense”, as it should be known. In each of the last two seasons, Arsenal have given up 51 goals, by far the most of any top five side in England (for comparison, last season’s champions Manchester City gave up 23, and second placed Liverpool 22). So far this summer, in order to bolster that defense, Arsenal have signed (checks notes)...nobody. So, the clown car will roll on, giving up at least one dumb goal a game most games. But hey, the new kits are straight fire, so that’s good.
VN: Full confession: I don’t know Arsenal’s youth and reserve teams very well. Who are some players in the squad who you’re expecting big things from, both in this game and for the season going forward?
PdB: As I mentioned up above, this is shaping up to be a big year for some Arsenal youth. Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, and to a lesser extent Tyreece John-Jules and Gabriel Martinelli are all Arsenal academy products, and the first three are in position to do some big things this season if they progress as they have.
With Arsenal’s self-imposed budget constraints, Unai Emery has already said that this group of kids will see significant time in the Europa League this season as they continue to develop, and will probably break into the team for league games here and there as well. It’s been a trying few years for Arsenal fans used to regular success and Champions League football, but this season at least there’ll be some talented kids trying to make names for themselves to get excited about. It’s been a while since Arsenal’s academy was any good, so the fact that there are anywhere between three and five players from it that are ready to break into the first team in the next couple seasons is really exciting.
VN: Prediction time: What do you think is the final score, who gets the goals, and what are the interesting trends in the game?
Pdb: I am legendarily bad at predictions, and even more so for preseason games to be played at uncertain intensity levels on a hot summer night. I’m going to go with 2-2, and Arsenal then winning on penalties, because apparently the ICC thinks it matters enough to require penalties in a friendly.
Big thank you to Paul, who’s wonderful (and one of the more helpful people on our Slack channel, so I probably owe him a beer or three just for that). I also answered some questions for the Short Fuse, which I’ll link here when they’re available.