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Arsenal find support and success on Dubai adventure


These days, it is difficult to find fans who get excited for international breaks. With the Premier League season reaching a boiling point, the thought of breaking away from the intensity of that action to play meaningless international friendlies is difficult to take. For Arsenal fans, it could not come at a worse time, as the team has been surging of late, riding a wave of momentum from their recent positive results into the top four of the table. 

Never one to leave a chance to improve on the table, Unai Emery wisely brought the remaining players and a healthy contingent of youngsters down to Dubai for some team bonding and intense warm weather training. Tuesday’s match at the Al Maktoum Stadium official re-opening against Al Nasr was the culmination of a hard week’s work, and for fans it was a great chance to whet the appetite for club football during the break. Arsenal went on to win the match 3-2, a somewhat surprising result given their superiority, but nothing that should make fans worry in such an informal environment.

Feeling hot, hot, hot…

If English football can look something like a study in grey for much of the Premier League season, the end of the campaign can appear almost dazzling by comparison. The elevated  temperatures can come as a bit of a shock to players who have spent the previous months playing in much cooler weather, so Unai Emery’s decision to bring the squad down to Dubai during this international break is not without its strategic benefits.

Managers such as Pep Guardiola have been proponents of warm weather training for years, and indeed many of the wealthier clubs on the continent use their winter breaks as an opportunity to regroup in more temperate climates in an effort to achieve optimal fitness levels for the business end of the season. 

The Arsenal players were certainly afforded this opportunity this week, as midday temperatures soared well over 30 degrees during much of their time in the Emirate. The match itself was played in similarly warm conditions, with the players appearing clearly laboured at times as they coped with the heat and the surprising intensity of the Al Nasr players.

The Gunners managed to escape the match with a narrow victory and without any injuries. The players on international duty appeared to stay mostly healthy, aside from a minor knock suffered by Aaron Ramsey in training with his Welsh teammates and Granit Xhaka, who picked up a minor hamstring problem with Switzerland in their disappointing 3-3 draw with Denmark on Tuesday. The team will soon reconvene back at London Colney where final preparations will be made to get the team ready for the homestretch. 

A contrasting approach

It was clear from the opening whistle that the two teams were approaching the match in very different ways. Arsenal brought a relaxed attitude into the match and found themselves quickly set upon by Al Nasr, who seldom get the opportunity to play against such a world-renowned side. The Arsenal defence sustained surprising pressure in the opening stages of the match, with Al Nasr even becoming the first to find the scoresheet from an excellent long range strike rom Ronnie Fernandez. 

After conceding, Arsenal began to grow into the game and match the intensity of the hosts. Before the half ended, cult hero Carl Jenkinson leveled the score after his leggy run into the box saw him collect a pass from Denis Suarez to first hit the crossbar, then slot home his second effort after recovering the rebound.

In the second half, the Gunners gave a far more representative effort of their abilities as the initial intensity of Al Nasr faded in the heat. Goals from Alexandre Lacazette and Tyreece John-Jules sealed the win, and despite a late push from Al Nasr that saw them win a penalty in the dying moments of the match, the Gunners coasted to the expected victory. 

Denis the menace

Ever since Denis Suarez arrived on loan from Barcelona during the January transfer window, fans have been waiting to see what the little Spaniard can do in an Arsenal shirt. Having played just 95 minutes in an Arsenal shirt, rumours have already begun circulating that Arsenal would be declining the purchase option on his contract at the end of the season, worth (a very reasonable in this inflated transfer market) £20m.

Getting the start along side Mesut Ozil in Arsenal’s aggressive 4-2-3-1, Suarez dominated in possession throughout much of the first half and into the second. His running, including closing down the Al Nasr backline in the press, spoke of a player desperate to impress his manager and earn himself more minutes in the end of season run. He displayed his lightning quick first step and Barcelona-approved technical quality on the dribble. Though he still struggled at times with physical challenges, finding himself unceremoniously knocked off the ball on more than one occasion, Suarez was generally impressive. He was a nuisance down the Arsenal left flank, constantly finding pockets of space from which to work, eventually culminating in an excellent pass to Jenkinson for the first Arsenal goal.

Though it remains to be seen if he can supplant players like Alex Iwobi, whose physicality is a welcome addition to the Arsenal attack, or Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his prolific work rate, Suarez had his best look in on the team yet. He even challenged for headers in the box in three separate occasions despite his diminutive frame making them near impossible to win. This sort of effort, especially in such a meaningless fixture, is sure to leave an impression on Unai Emery and the fans alike. His defiance and hard work in the face of the already mounting questions in the media will only endear him to the Emirates faithful more. We will now get to see just how impressed Emery was with his performance as the Spaniard sets his team up for the homestretch.

The talent factory at Hale End

If there is one thing that has become apparent over the last couple of seasons, it is the sheer amount of raw talent Arsenal possess in the youth ranks. Tuesday’s match was a wonderful opportunity for fans to have a glimpse into the future of the club, as well as for the youngsters who were delighted to be given a chance with the first team. 

Ben Sheaf and Charlie Gilmour held down the fort in the centre of the park, making the simple passes to move the ball into the feet of the danger men. Though they struggled at times as a defensive unit, this can be perhaps forgiven by the lack of familiarity and continuity in the side. Xavier Amaechi showed off his explosive pace and desire to make something happen for the team (perhaps being too anxious to prove himself at times) and Júlio Pleguezuelo and Zech Medley each flashed their ability at the back. Medley was played out of position at left back, but he displayed good long speed in his lanky frame and showed off his raw potential throughout the first half.

In the second half, after full scale changes to the team, Tyreece John-Jules was easily the most impressive of the bunch, scoring his first ever goal with the first team from an opportunity he generated himself with pure defensive effort. The tenacity with which he pressed the Al Nasr defence was sure to impress Emery, and he marked himself out as one to watch for the future, despite the youngsters that are still ahead of him in the pecking order.

In the future, Arsenal will have to make some hard decisions on this crop of talented youth products, as there are simply too many to feasibly all make it into the first team. However, given their opportunities with the team or on loan, there will be players that naturally begin to distinguish themselves and claim places in the first team. However, the fans and the club can be proud of Tuesday’s performance, knowing that this is perhaps the best crop of academy graduates they have seen in years.

A global star

In the insular world of English football, it can sometimes be hard to appreciate just how big some of these players are the world over. And in a Muslim country like the UAE, there is no bigger star in the Arsenal team than Mesut Ozil. Much to the delight of the fans in the stadium, Ozil was handed a start by Unai Emery and his first few touches were met with uproars of applause from the stands. 

It took a while for him to grow into the match, but he eventually offered up a sublime assist to Lacazette for his second half goal, and altogether showed off the technical quality and smooth acceleration that has earned him such a rabid following in his years as a professional. He wasn’t in full flight at times, and was knocked off the ball a little too easily for his manager’s liking, but nevertheless his appearance was a treat for the fans at the Al Maktoum Stadium.

It is hard to quantify the exact financial effect a player of his stature can have on his club, but there can be little doubt that Ozil is a massive factor in the club’s popularity in the Middle East and beyond. With clubs depending on every increasing global fanbases to generate revenue from merchandise and commercial partners, a player of Ozil’s stature can add value beyond what takes place on the pitch. Ozil delighted in the warmth of support from the crowd on Tuesday, and perhaps his reception will serve as a reminder to the club why it extended itself so much to lock him down to a new contract last year.

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