MATCH REPORT: PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN 1-1 ARSENAL

I have to admit, when I saw the starting line-up for tonight’s game, I sighed. Wenger’s decision to start Ospina over Cech seemed to be the greatest cause for debate among the pundits on TV. Personally, the exclusion of £35+m signing, Granit Xhaka was far more baffling. Wenger has been a vehement champion of Ospina since he joined the club, insisting he has ‘two world-class keepers’. Coquelin, however, has been inconsistent this season and last. Before improving in the second, was poor in the first half against Southampton. What Xhaka has shown in an Arsenal shirt so far has only enhanced the feeling that he might offer what Arsenal have lacked in midfield for a decade. As the teams came out, the quiet confidence I’d had all day was undoubtedly damaged – but then they lined up and the Champions League music started and I got all excited again.

I’d barely made a dent in my sofa when Serge Aurier, in space on the right, played in a wonderful cross to find a wide-open Edinson Cavani right in front of Arsenal’s goal. His flicked header gave Ospina no chance. Arsenal were a goal down less than a minute into their Champions League campaign. Shkodran Mustafi was caught woefully neglectful. Perhaps he was still humming the Champions League music to himself. I know I was.

PSG came out much the sharper. Arsenal looked familiarly overawed. Wenger’s men have started their previous two European campaigns with defeats and it looked as if it was happening again.

After the goal and a frantic few minutes, the game settled down and so did Arsenal. Without creating any great chances, they were keeping the ball and moving it forward. For a time, they actually looked relatively comfortable, though the goal had given permission for PSG to sit back.

As so often is the case when he is deployed in a central striking position, Alexis Sanchez looked isolated. Too often he was forced to drift deep or wide left to collect the ball, which wouldn’t have mattered so much if Oxlade-Chamberlain, on the right was the type to run into central channels well. He is not and even when he did, he was comfortably being marked out of the game. As the half went on, Matuidi, Rabiot and Veratti were beginning to see more of the ball than Coquelin, Ozil and Cazorla.

Cavani’s movement was causing all kinds of trouble for Koscielny and Mustafi. Twice before the half ended he found himself in positions from which he really should have added to his tally. Thankfully for Arsenal, he was continuing to play with the indifferent finishing form he’s started the French domestic season with. At half-time, the Arsenal players would probably have been feeling fortunate to only be trailing by one.

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Arsenal started the second half with energy, but still lacked the strength and stability in midfield that the Parisians were playing with. The balance was clearly wrong and PSG were finding it easy to repeatedly soak up futile Arsenal pressure and break back to good effect. Di Maria was moving well off the ball and saw a half-hearted penalty claim waved away by the referee.

Coquelin is a player who needs to play alongside a more creative player; today Cazorla. When he’s found in positions high up the field, it shows and he simply wasn’t displaying the composure or vision on the ball needed against such strong opposition. Matuidi meanwhile was winning the ball back and offloading it regularly and impeccably, in a vein much more familiar to a certain legendary French Arsenal midfielder.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was also noticeably off the pace, on several occasions misplacing passes and then being slow to react once he had. When the change came and Olivier Giroud replaced him, not one fan watching would have had any complaints. I applauded. The lad just has to improve and quickly, both for his short term stake in the first team and his long-term career at Arsenal.

The change had an instant effect. Sanchez was moved to the left and within seconds looked visibly more at home. He was able to cut in from wide positions and see other Arsenal shirts in good positions. As a result, the game looked much more evenly balanced. PSG though, were still creating chances. Cavani’s movement was still impressive. His finishing still wasn’t. Di Maria also had chances saved. Had he or Cavani found their shooting boots tonight, Arsenal could have been three or four behind and beaten in an hour. David Ospina was doing well to justify his place in the side. On a number of occasions, he was called upon to spare Arsenal’s blushes – once, admittedly through his own doing.

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The pairing of Mustafi and Koscielny clearly has some growing to do. After all, this is their second game together. I can’t help but imagine whether they would have been gelling by now had the fee for Mustafi been agreed at an earlier date. At the other end of the field, Arsenal were looking far more effective. Granit Xhaka was – at last – brought on with 20 minutes remaining. Alex Iwobi, I felt was having a good game and the reshuffled line-up allowed him to move more freely. His movement is that of a natural forward and it was his ability to drift into the box unmarked that drew a world-class delivery from the left from Mesüt Özil, who’d also started to grow into the game after a shaky first half. Iwobi’s shot was hit well, but too centrally. Areola saved, but the late arriving Sanchez struck the rebound into the bottom corner. Alexis had been moved to his preferred position and immediately improved. Crazy.

After the equaliser the game continued to stretch and with about 10 minutes left, Iwobi again earned himself a good scoring opportunity. Once more running in behind Sanchez – again, why did Arsenal not start this way? His placed shot was too tame and saved well down low by Areola, who like his Arsenal counterpart, was having a good game.

Olivier Giroud has developed a somewhat fractured relationship with French fans over the years and that was in evidence again tonight. He was gesticulating at every decision against him and as a result got himself booked. In stoppage time, he and Veratti collided and some unsavoury scenes broke out. Just what exactly happened to warrant both Giroud and Veratti being sent off is unclear, but just as Giroud had come on with a great deal of passion, he left the field because of it. The game ended, both teams with one goal and ten men.

To their credit, Arsenal clung onto a single-goal deficit for almost 80 minutes and hit back when they got their chance. They stayed in the game in a very tough atmosphere against a fantastic side. On reflection, a point away to the French Champions – given Arsenal’s quite ordinary performance and the amount of gilt-edged chances missed by Cavani – might seem like a very good point.

Player ratings: Ospina 8, Bellerin 6, Mustafi 5, Koscielny 5, Monreal 6, Coquelin 5, Cazorla 6, Ozil 7, Oxlade-Chamberlain 5, Iwobi 7, Alexis 7, Giroud 5, Xhaka 6, Elneny 6.

MATCH REPORT: WATFORD 1-3 ARSENAL

Exactly what Arsenal need most has been a popular subject of debate for years, mostly because the argument hasn’t really changed. Whether it’s a top striker or a top centre-back, Wenger is on the brink of acquiring two players he believes can answer critics on both sides of that debate. However, after just one point from the opening two games, whatever transpires between now and the close of the window, the thing Arsenal surely needed more than anything today was three points. Especially given that Arsenal’s recent record against Watford (in the league, at least) is flawless.

Arsenal started the game brightly, dominating possession and creating openings. Mesut Özil was rested for the opening fixture and brought on late in the second. Starting today, clearly fit, he looked imperious. When the team news was released an hour before kickoff, I’d be lying if I said the midfield three of Xhaka, Cazorla and Özil didn’t make me a little giddy. Xhaka’s presence also, even at this early age of the season, is a reassuring one. A midfielder who thinks defensively first, while possessing the range of passing he does, is something Arsenal’s midfield has long been crying out for. As Xhaka anchored, ahead of him Watford’s midfield were struggling to keep pace with the technical ability, passing and movement of Arsenal’s forward four. Alexis, starting as a central striker, naturally drifted left throughout the first half, causing Walcott, starting on the right, to continually drift centrally.

Mesut Özil is one of those players who seem to find time and space on the ball that others can’t. In one such instance, he was able to lift his head, see an unmarked Alexis moving towards the penalty spot and dink a delightfully weighted pass in his direction. Alexis was clattered by Nordin Amrabat, elbowed across the head and thrown to the floor. As the commentators on my feed debated the validity of one of the simplest penalty decisions I’ve ever seen, Santi Cazorla dispatched it for his first goal in almost 18 months.

The pace of the game understandably dropped after the goal, as Arsenal afforded Watford a little more time and space, while also remaining completely untroubled. Watford however, started to ease into the game, threatening from counter attacks. The pressure gradually built until a rapid Watford counter attack forced an impressive reaction save out of Cech, to stop Koscielny volleying into his own goal. The incident seemingly sparked Arsenal back into life.

Everything was going down Arsenal’s left. Alexis was looking as tireless as ever, but with a level of added conviction he’d lacked in the opening two fixtures. The space formed on the right was allowing Hector Bellerín (who was excellent today, by the way) to roam forward and link up well with Theo Walcott. Theo also displayed an impressive work-rate throughout and it was his well-placed pass across the face of goal that Alexis was able to, somewhat awkwardly, tap home on 40 minutes. Five minutes later, on the stroke of half-time, Alexis turned provider – floating a precise cross from the left into the path of the onrushing Özil, who headed home. Arsenal were playing slick, incisive football and getting their rewards. Even if the points weren’t yet guaranteed, this was the performance Arsenal needed.

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The second half was an entirely different one from the first. Rather than exercising damage limitation, Watford boss, Walter Mazzarri made an attacking change and his team showed a great deal more attacking intent as a result. Arsenal seemed unready for it and the waves of attacking pressure proved too much for Arsenal’s defence after 57 minutes. After a series of blocked attempts, Watford’s summer signing, Roberto Pereyra found the net to give the Hornets hope.

Rob Holding and Laurent Koscielny have done well to develop any kind of coherent central defensive pairing in such a short amount of time. The pair that kept a clean sheet at Leicester last week impressed again here. Holding’s stock amongst Arsenal fans and others alike continues to rise. That said, the work done by Granit Xhaka to guard them ensured they had little to do.

Mazzarri had clearly identified Arsenal’s left as the base for their attack and for a period, Nacho Monreal admirably weathered the storm of pressure. After 70 minutes, Jack Wilshere and Mohammed Elneny were brought on to establish midfield authority and reclaim some possession – Özil and Oxlade-Chamberlain departed. At least that was what I assumed was the intent, until both of them were caught out charging forward minutes later with an unsuccessful counter of their own. By the time Kieran Gibbs replaced Nacho Monreal – on 74 minutes – the game was stretched, but out of Watford’s reach.

In truth, Arsenal had killed the game off before half-time and Watford’s fightback, though admirable, was futile. Clear-cut chances were few and far between in the final quarter and Arsenal, in relative comfort thanks to and devastating first half, held on. Whisper it, but there has emerged a feint whiff of optimism around Arsenal this week. With the arrival of a new centre-back and striker imminent, and the first win of the season in the bag, there are at least causes for optimism. The side’s first half performance today, particularly the standout displays of Özil, Xhaka, Alexis, Walcott and Bellerín will surely embolden that optimism. But, like I said, whisper it.

BLOG: WENGER’S FINAL BOW?

For better or worse, there is no other club in world football so synonymously associated with their head coach as Arsenal. Pre-Wenger, Arsenal were a distinctly different club, a club which those of us younger than 30 have few vivid memories of. He has transformed the club in every possible sense. His two-decade tenure has brought with it unprecedented expectations – expectations of both style and success. If not for Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger would surely stand alone amongst his modern managerial peers as the one to leave behind the greatest legacy.

When Arsenal begin their Premier League campaign on Sunday, Arsene Wenger will, not for the first time, walk out into the Emirates dugout with fewer than 12 months remaining on his existing contract. He has recently insisted he will wait to see how this season pans out before signing any kind of extension. Whether that suggests he’s more likely to sign after a poor start or a good one remains unclear. We do know if it were left up to the man himself, if recent seasons are anything to go by, it would take an almighty shortfall for him to no longer consider himself the best man for the job.

Jose Mourinho has intimated in the past that Wenger has complete job security at Arsenal. It has certainly been the case in the past that, by achieving the bare minimum required for a number of consecutive seasons, an atmosphere of lack of accountability had developed at Arsenal. That sense of comfort in familiarity continues to fade daily in Highbury and, in my opinion, the end of last season seemed to signal the beginning of the end for Wenger, and not just for the fans. My feeling is that Arsene himself has also begun to accept what is becoming more and more inevitable. Questions surrounding his plans after Arsenal have become more commonplace during interviews. He was offered the England role during the summer, a post which surely he nor the FA would have even considered realistic a few years ago.

The toxic atmosphere that had started to boil over at points of last season has calmed. A second place finish thanks to a late Spurs collapse dampened the fact that the same failures had cost the club silverware, again. But that fact hasn’t been completely glossed over this summer in the way it might have been previously. With only one notable first-team signing made as we start the domestic season, the fans expect. With only one outfield signing in the previous two windows, given the resources at Wenger’s disposal, patience is at an all time low and a failure to invest adequately in first team talent, compounded by a poor start would undoubtedly create an atmosphere too volatile to contend with for even a man with such job security.

Even with a successful window – one that leaves fans optimistic, even expectant about Arsenal’s title chances – Wenger has his critics to answer. Arsenal come under the same criticisms tactically each season. One of the more familiar gripes is a lack of leadership in the team. As I write this, Arsenal are yet to release the name of the official club captain for the season and, in my mind, not one candidate stands out with any great certainty. Other top clubs are strengthening daily. Mourinho and Guardiola have been provided the means to succeed; it will be as hard as it has ever been in 2016/17. Arsenal’s record against the other top teams in the league last year was not as bad as previous years and the side maintained a good defensive record. Arsenal have also started to play with a degree more respect for balance in the last couple of years. Wenger is far more willing now to allow other teams to play onto his, creating space at the other end of the pitch, rather than creating hours of meaningless sideways possession.

There is a feeling, to me at least, he has started to compromise on some long held beliefs of late, not only that, but started to see the benefits of doing so. My hope was that this contemporary outlook would spread to his attitude in the transfer market. My hope was that he would want to build a team, use the resources he never used, to bow out in the way we all wish he could. We have a couple of weeks left to see if my hope is validated.

Whether he goes next year or in three or in five, Wenger knows his entire Arsenal career might be defined by what happens between now and then. Success would be the perfect way to bow out. Failure, even an early exit, might leave a stain that can’t ever be removed. One would safely assume he’ll be playing a part in selecting an appropriate successor and for a man like Wenger, I reckon that process would probably take quite a long time. Having seen what happened at Man United after Ferguson left, I’m sure he’ll be keen not to have the same happen to his beloved Arsenal.

One particular question regarding his attitude towards retirement in a recent interview sparked an anecdote about that familiar old foe, Sir Alex. Arsene had asked Sir Alex whether he missed football, Sir Alex replied, “Not at all.” Wenger then said he couldn’t understand that, “It’s an emptiness in your life, especially when you’ve lived your whole life waiting for the next game and trying to win it.”

After buying Wenger’s top scorer from the previous season, Sir Alex ended his Manchester United career with a League title and was able to give his final speech to an adoring public. He was able to step down a hero, immortal. What Wenger has done at Arsenal means he is already that. His management has built a stadium, it has built a reputation and it has built a legacy. His Arsenal career started with huge success. I imagine one reason Sir Alex is able to say he doesn’t miss managing a football team is because his career ended with it too. Until Arsene Wenger can say the same he might just go on, ‘waiting for the next game and trying to win it’.

MATCH REPORT: ARSENAL VS MANCHESTER CITY

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.

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Alexis Sanchez, along with Aaron Ramsey, made his first appearance of pre-season

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.