Are Arsenal Getting Set for a Big Tilt at the Champions League?

Andy BrassellFeatured ColumnistJuly 28, 2015

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Let’s start by acknowledging the caveats. Yes, the Emirates Cup is essentially a friendly tournament. The teams involved in friendlies are always at different stages of preparation in terms of fitness, intensity and recruitment.

Nevertheless, the past weekend was a pretty good one for Arsenal. Two wins, seven goals scored and none conceded against two sides that will also be going directly into the Champions League group stage—Lyon and Wolfsburg—is not a haul to be sniffed at.

The nature of pre-season has shifted considerably for English clubs in the past decade or so, with running up big scores against minnows increasingly eschewed in favour of confrontations (albeit at half-tilt) against stronger sides that could turn out to be direct rivals later in the season.

There are commercial imperatives in doing so, of course—selling television rights, shifting tickets—but ultimately, it’s no bad thing on a sporting level. These encounters often require significant travel, in keeping with playing the international market, but by facing potentially tough opposition without so much as leaving London N5, Arsenal are getting the best of both worlds (in this section of their pre-season, at least).

The first of those opponents at the weekend, Lyon, were certainly not expected to be brushed aside so easily. The warm reception reserved by the home crowd for the visitors’ young stars Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir was a reminder of how far their renown has spread, with both players periodically linked to the Gunners in the gossip columns.

Neither had much of a sniff against an Arsenal side that was slick and decisive. Lyon may have had their excuses—the absence of first-choice full-backs Christophe Jallet and Henri Bedimo, then the serious injury to Clement Grenier that seemed to knock his team-mates out of kilter—but it was still irresistible fare.

What was particularly striking about the lineup to face Wolfsburg 24 hours later was the identity of the only player to start both matches. Mesut Ozil would normally seem like an unlikely candidate to do that, but he had an excellent pair of games.

The Germany midfielder had been in especially fine fettle against Lyon when he ran the first half before scoring a richly deserved fifth goal himself. This was perhaps the best indication of how Ozil might be best used this season, at the tip of what would probably be the basis of Arsene Wenger’s first-choice midfield.

Francis Coquelin, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain provided exactly the sort of physical power and energy that would free Ozil to do what he does best, with defensive tasks trimmed to a minimum. Arsenal have always needed to find a way to give Ozil that platform, with his quality potentially decisive in the Champions League.

The demands on Arsenal were different against Wolfsburg; Dieter Hecking fielded a side that was close to full strength, and it was a far more competitive match than Saturday’s. Yet it was, in a very different way, full of suggestion that they might be able to punch their weight in the Champions League.

Gabriel, in action here against Wolfsburg, showed Arsenal's strength in depth against quality opposition
Gabriel, in action here against Wolfsburg, showed Arsenal's strength in depth against quality oppositionDavid Rogers/Getty Images

With the emergence of Hector Bellerin and Gabriel confident after six months of bedding in, the second-string defence looked almost as secure as the first-choice one. Petr Cech looked every bit the presence that Arsenal fans anticipated he would be (taking control to clear the danger from Ricardo Rodriguez’s late free-kick being a case in point).

Theo Walcott’s goal suggested that he too could make important contributions, and at both ends of the pitch, Arsenal have the means to eke out a result against quality opposition, which Wolfsburg undoubtedly are.

That elusive elite-level centre-forward would still be a boon. The rumoured arrival of Fernando Llorente (as reported by talkSPORT) would not be that but would at least take the pressure off the multi-tasking—if not quite crack—Olivier Giroud. Coquelin could do (at the very least) with direct competition too, with Mikel Arteta not thoroughly convincing in that role.

Yes, it’s early to be drawing conclusions, but at least Arsenal are getting into good habits—and showing their European ambitions—nice and early. That they did so against two teams at similarly crucial stages in their preparations, facing Trophee des Champions/DFL Super Cup games against Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich respectively, is even more impressive.