A sellout crowd was on hand at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, to witness Arsenal well and truly kick their pre-season into high gear with a solid win over a familiar foe in Bayern Munich.
On a night under the stars in la-la land, it was only fitting that Arsenal and Bayern play out a match fit for Hollywood, with far more intensity and passion than your average pre-season encounter.
An own goal created by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and a late winner from Eddie Nketiah highlighted the hard-fought, high tempo, entertaining and highly competitive friendly in L.A.
These sides know each other well (some would say too well) from past Champions League group stage and knockout rounds. Bayern fans in full force pre-game chanted infamous scorelines like “10-2”in the faces of rueful Arsenal fans.
But it was Arsenal who got the last laugh on this occasion, when in the 85th minute, Tyreece John-Jules’low cross was met by Nketiah at the far post for an easy tap-in. The goal capped off a scintillating 8-minute cameo for the young striker, who’s performance will have Arsenal fans dreaming of the future.
The game was a fairly even affair, a marked contrast from previous encounters marked by total German dominance and a trademark Arsenal capitulation. This time, Arsenal seemed assured in posession, reasonably solid defensively (minus Mustafi, of course) and supremely confident going forward.
An incredible reaction save from Bernd Leno in the 32nd minute kept the match scoreless. Thomas Muller came sliding in at the near post to meet a driven cross, and Leno had his wits about him to get low and palm it away to keep the match scoreless.
Just minutes later, it might’ve been Arsenal who opened the scoring. Aubameyang picked up the ball inside Arsenal’s penalty box before setting off on a barn-storming run right down the center of the Bayern defense, before setting Mesut Ozil through to have shot at Neuer, who saved well.
And it was eventually Aubameyang who helped Arsenal open the scoring.
The Gabonese forward latched onto a dreamy floated ball over the top from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, driving the ball across goal, which was turned in by Bayern defender Louis Poznanski.
Bayern clawed themselves back into the match in the 70th minute when (of all players) former Arsenal man Serge Gnabry received the ball on the right flank, lofting in a delicious ball that Robert Lewandowski powerfully rose to head home. In all fairness, keeper Emiliano Martinez had no chance.
Several Arsenal players stood out last night. Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette both looked sharp and hungry from the get-go, combining well with one another and looking to link up frequently throughout the game.
Mesut Ozil, complete with a brand-new haircut, was busy, lively and was often on the move, looking for the ball. He kept it flowing, could have scored and picked passes. If he keeps working hard and putting the effort in then surely there must be a place for a player with so much outrageous talent.
Joe Willock, one of the game’s best performers, was subbed at the 65th-minute mark, but to that point, he had done everything you’d want from an Arsenal midfielder. He looked strong and comfortable in possession, kept the ball diligently and wasn’t afraid of getting stuck in. He could make a good partner to Granit Xhaka as defensive cover.
But it was young Eddie Nketiah who stole the show with an incredibly impressive cameo that Arsenal will desperately hope hints at things to come this season.
Just like last game against Colorado Rapids, Nketiah looked hungry and eager to make a strong impression on and off the ball, best epitomized when he chased down what looked like a hopelessly long goal kick from Martinez, fought off Bayern centerback Nicklas Süle (who is twice his size), won the ball off him, shrugged off the pressure from behind, and nearly slid the ball under Lars Ulreich to score.
He got just reward for his efforts on the very next play when he tapped in the winner.
The new shift to playing the youth is an exciting prospect for many Arsenal fans, and Head Coach Unai Emery says they plan on using the kids frequently throughout the season. He credited assistant coach Freddie Ljungberg with being a champion of youth, and as Emery revealed in his post-match press conference, his new assistant has already been influencing his selection.
“Above all he’s helping us with the young players because he knows better than us every young player,” the Gunners boss said.
Emery has backed Ljungberg’s judgement and so far has been rewarded with a composed and confident displays from nearly every youngster who’s stepped onto the pitch for the Gunners.
The victory wasn’t without its hiccups, though. Arsenal’s backline still doesn’t look entirely settled. About eight minutes in, Sokratis and Leno nearly gifted Bayern an early goal after a mix-up in a crowded penalty box.
Mustafi looked out of sorts and didn’t quite seem up to the pace of the game. His lack of concentration showed when he switched off and allowed Lewandowski a free header for Bayern’s equalizer. That is a situation that needs to get sorted out by both club and player sooner rather than later, because it seems untenable that Mustafi still be the club’s first-choice centerback if he continues with performances like that.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who had a good game going forward, was repeatedly torched by Kingsley Coman, who turned him inside out on multiple occasions before creating dangerous chances.
It’s important to remember he’s only 21, but that’s something that the young lad will certainly have to work on as the season approaches.
Head coach Unai Emery addressed Maitland-Niles’s defensive issues during the post-game press conference, saying he was glad these issues showed themselves during pre-season so that they could work with him to improve.
Arsenal could be without Hector Bellerin until late autumn, so Maitland-Niles will be playing games at right back again and this was a good start and a good lesson for him.
And lastly, that kit. Oh, that kit. For a design lover like me, it looks absolutely fabulous and had the entire stadium buzzing pre-game. The “bruised banana”effect is slightly more nuanced than the retro 90’s kit, but it’s already a smash hit with fans, and who can blame them? Mine’s already coming in the post.
Arsenal now play Fiorentina in Charlotte on Saturday before they finish the International Champions Cup against Real Madridin Washington.