Arsenal vs Chelsea friendly at the Aviva Stadium offers an intriguing glimpse into two sides in transition
Ironically enough, one of the first managers to begin demanding more competitive pre-season friendlies was none other than José Mourinho.
“I sat down with José in 2003 and he said. ‘I want to play really hard games,’” Charlie Stillitano, one of the bigwigs behind the conception of the International Champions Cup, told The Guardian earlier this month. “José was the first person to not just embrace it, but demand it. Sir Alex Ferguson later wrote he learned something from José about getting ready to start the season. It was like total stamp-endorsing.”
And yet rarely has there been a flatter pre-season than this. World Cup depleted squads have seen this year’s ICC games played out in front of frequently half-full mega stadiums, with foreign fans either deterred by staggeringly high ticket prices, or starting elevens full of unfamiliar names that only the most ardent of supporters would recognise. It’s one thing to pay $150 a pop to watch, say, Paul Pogba. It’s rather a different matter when Andreas Pereira is playing instead.
So, do pre-season games matter, or do they not? Arsenal supporters would be well placed to argue the latter, especially considering their infamous summer of 2015, when the club signed Petr Cech and beat Everton 3-0, Lyon 6-0 and Wolfsburg 1-0 to lift the coveted Emirates Cup, before unexpectedly beating Chelsea 1-0 to lift the Community Shield. The end result? A humbling 1-0 loss at home to West Ham on the opening day of the season. They never threatened for the title from there. So much for momentum.
But, this time around, Arsenal’s summer in the sun feels like it might just matter more than most. New manager Unai Emery has an exhaustive to-do list, and has spent his time in Singapore getting to know a completely new squad, while experimenting with several different tactical systems. He has also had to instil a completely new philosophy at the club, dusting away the cobwebs left by the tired Arsene Wenger era.
The results so far have been encouraging, both in a literal and metaphorical sense. Before flying to Singapore a surprisingly strong starting XI put eight past fifth-tier Boreham Wood; after arriving they drew 1-1 with Atlético Madrid and then thrashed a ragtag Paris Saint-Germain side 5-1. But far more important was the manner in which they achieved those results.
Arsenal have been tactically flexible, lining up in both a 4-2-3-1 and even a variant of a straight-forward 4-4-2, while switching to a back-three midway through both of their games in the stifling heat of Singapore. This fits with Emery’s wider philosophy; while both tactically astute and meticulously prepared, he is far from dogmatic, often switching between preferred systems to prepare differently for different opponents.
He has also used the ICC as an opportunity to take a long hard look at the full depth of his squad which, unlike all of Arsenal’s top-six rivals, has been left relatively unaffected by players disappearing for World Cup duty. Young players such as Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe have been handed an invaluable chance to impress; new signings such as Bernd Leno and Mattéo Guendouzi have been thoroughly examined; and familiar faces like Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan have been experimented with in a variety of different positions.
Having flown home from Singapore over the weekend, Arsenal tonight come up against Chelsea in Dublin, another team in the midst of a full-scale overhaul, and another team in the midst of a pre-season that is all the more significant because of that.
Shortly after Chelsea’s fairly anodyne penalty shootout victory over Inter Milan in the ICC last week, a short clip from the game began doing the rounds on the internet. First it was breathlessly poured upon on Reddit, before migrating to Twitter where it met with similar approval. But it wasn’t a video of Pedro’s scruffy opener, or Roberto Gagliardini’s well-taken equaliser, or any of the utterly pointless penalties that followed.
Instead, the clip showed new signing Jorginho orchestrating Chelsea’s asphyxiating high-press early into the game, as his yellow-shirted team-mates hassled and harried Inter’s panicked back-line like hornets over a picnic in the park. It was a neat summation of the transformation that is already well underway. Especially as, prior to Maurizio Sarri’s first match, you would be forgiven for wondering just how much was going to change, really. After all, there are a number of similarities between Sarri and Antonio Conte, from their high-intensity style of play to the league they proved themselves in. This isn't even the first time Sarri has replaced Conte, following the former’s ill-fated spell at Arezzo.
In that one-minute flash, then, it all began to seem clear. Chelsea were utterly unrecognisable from the languid, walking-pace play that had characterised the dying days of Conte’s troubled reign. Instead they were a still rough around the edges replica of the Napoli side that Sarri had steered to success, with the same formation, intensity, even the same heartbeat. The result was ultimately inconsequential; how they got there was not.
That is why tonight’s fixture is such an intriguing one. No, the result does not matter. No, the starting line-ups will ultimately bear no reflection on the starting line-ups both managers prepare for their first Premier League game. And, no, the outcome will in no way impact on the first meeting proper between these two sides this season, on the 18 August, in just under three weeks’ time.
But what does matter is how well both managers have begun putting across their philosophies, not to mention how their players respond to their unique tactical demands, with the new Premier League season just a matter of days away. Both Emery and Sarri have been handed exceptionally difficult tasks, for which no pre-season would have been adequately long enough.
Tonight will then be a small measure of how much they have accomplished, and how much further they still have to go.