The final and most convincing test of Arsenal’s pre-season provided Arsène and the boys with Premier League opposition in the shape of Pep Guardiola’s evolving Manchester City side. A pre-season fixture against a side of similar caliber was surely vital, for a squad coming off the back of an undefeated and relatively unchallenged run against Lens, MLS All-Stars, Chivas de Guadalajara and Viking FK. Arsenal’s final test before last season’s league campaign officially begun was against Chelsea, in the Community Shield final. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s solitary goal gave Arsenal the win on that day, only for them to lose the opening fixture at home against West Ham a week later. So whatever the outcome here, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect a decidedly different Arsenal come next weekend.
The starting line-up, fielded under the clouds at The Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, saw Petr Čech reintroduced behind a back four of Bellerín, Gabriel, Holding and Monreal. Aaron Ramsey made his first appearance since returning from an impressive summer with Wales, deployed in the central-attacking role he plays for his country, backed up by Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin. Guardiola fielded a strong side, with a front three of Sterling, Aguero and new signing, Nolito. Arsenal’s own front three of Alex Iwobi, Alexis Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain was much less a reflection of the attack we are likely to see played during the season.
After a busy opening couple of minutes, in which Oxlade-Chamberlain blazed a shot high above an open goal from a difficult angle, the game eased into a gentle pace. Ramsey found himself picked out by an inch perfect cross from Alexis after 12 minutes – a cross which he headed just over the bar and really ought to have done more with. Five minutes later, Xhaka showed what he might bring to the team this season, winning the ball high up the field and feeding Oxlade-Chamberlain, who, one-on-one with Caballero, chipped just wide. Arsenal were missing opportunities, and when Coquelin failed to put the ball into a keeper-less goal after a poor clearance from Kolarov, they could now fairly be accused of wasting them.
The growing feeling of missed opportunities was compounded after half an hour when Sergio Aguero tapped home a Raheem Sterling delivery with what was City’s first real chance of the game. Holding and Gabriel were stretched and it was perfect cross and met by a clinical finish. After being limited to half-chances for most of the half by a well-shaped Arsenal, City grew into the game after the goal, seeing more of the ball, if not creating any more clear-cut chances. By half time, a week before the domestic season starts, the fact that Arsenal still lack an out and out finisher was never more apparent.
The start of the second half saw the introduction of Chambers, Elneny and Walcott for Holding, Xhaka and Oxlade-Chamberlain, respectively. City were sent out to press high and after four minutes of doing so, were caught out by a long ball down Arsenal’s right. Theo Walcott latched onto it, found Iwobi who was arriving late and Iwobi dispatched an accomplished finish low to Joe Hart’s left. Alex Iwobi is seemingly building on the form he finished last season with and remains one of the clearest causes for optimism for Wenger and Arsenal fans.
After the equalizer, Arsenal again began to look the more threatening team. Theo Walcott had a fierce, low strike saved well by Hart. Just after the hour Santi Cazorla replaced Ramsey in an attempt to maintain midfield authority, while City made several of their own changes. With twenty minutes remaining, Walcott combined well with Alexis around the area. Alexis played the pass through and, in a timely reminder of the frustration the man can imbue, Theo chipped deftly over Hart and into the net. We all know Walcott is capable of moments like this. Until he can do it on a consistent basis, the same questions will be asked. Chuba Akpom and Joel Campbell were brought for the final quarter. Campbell was, as always, a nuisance. Akpom was, when called upon, clinical. As the game was stretched in the closing stages, he found the ball at his feet in that area and only a defender between himself and the goal. Chuba rolled the ball home to make it four goals in four pre-season games – he represents another great cause for optimism for Gooners.
City had the best of the chances in the final few minutes, Toure and Navas among others, squandered good sights at goal. Iwobi’s friend and fellow Nigerian prospect, Kelechi Iheanacho gave City some late hope with a headed goal and for a time, it looked as if an equalizer might come.
As it happened, the game did have a sting in it’s tail, though a far more debilitating one than an equalizer. When the broadcaster decides not to show replays of an injury, you can assume the worst. Iheanacho and Gabriel collided in stoppage time and it took ten minutes to get Gabriel off the field with his left leg in a splint. It’ll take some time to analyse the full extent of the injury, but if early indications are anything to go by, we may not see him again this year – a nightmarish end to what was, on the whole, a positive display from Arsenal. Arsenal were certainly the better team for the majority of the game. City grew into each half and created plenty, but the game finished 3-2 to Arsenal, and City would have had few complaints with the result. Any sense of joy, however, was curtailed by Gabriel’s unceremonious exit.
So what have we learned this pre-season? Well, if the concerns going into the window were that Arsenal lack a top striker and a top centre-back, then not a great deal.