Feature

The six Gunners with a point to prove in Sydney

Arsenal have arrived in Sydney this week in a buoyant mood and with surging expectations ahead of the upcoming season – not least because of the sensational $90 million signing of French striker Alexandre Lacazette.

However, while the good vibes surrounding the team should lead to two huge crowds 48 hours apart at ANZ Stadium, there’s plenty of Arsenal players who need to make a statement on this tour.

Last season marked the first time in 21 years that the North London side missed the top four. 

It might be injuries, fitness, adjustment or positional problems, but with a clean slate and welcome break behind them, we look at the six Gunners who need to make their trip Down Under much more than a pre-season holiday.

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Granit Xhaka, 24, midfielder

League games 2016/17: 28 starts, 4 substitute appearances

Goals (Assists) 2016/17: 2 (3)

It is unwise to write-off a footballer after one season, especially one as talented as Granit Xhaka.

But the overwhelming feeling from the Emirates is that the Swiss midfielder has more on the line than any one else this year.

Arguably a victim of his huge £34 million (A$57 million) price-tag, the pressure was immediately on in his first campaign and he was initially swallowed up by the pressure of the Premier League.

Still, just as Arsenal’s title hopes were fading in the New Year, Xhaka, ironically, began to step up where others were stepping down.

And that form would continue to steadily grow until May, when he scored the decisive goal to break Manchester United’s unbeaten streak and then backed it up with a stellar display in the FA Cup final.

Now he’s come this far, can he go all the way and become the elite midfield presence the Gunners haven’t had since Santi Cazorla was fully fit?

Olivier Giroud, 30, striker

League games 2016/17: 11 starts, 18 substitute appearances

Goals (Assists) 2016/17: 12 (3)

Where to now for Giroud? He’s had a very respectable Arsenal career, scoring between 11 and 16 league goals each season and ultimately nabbing 98 goals in 226 games in all competitions.

He’d be a hero anywhere else, but there’s an eternal feeling that Giroud is the embodiment of the very frustration Arsenal fans have with Arsene Wenger’s selection policy: a cheap option for a premium position. 

If he stays, the arrival of Lacazette absolutely confirms his role on the bench this season.



Either way, he’ll certainly get a run at ANZ Stadium – and he’ll want to impress any potential suitors who think he’s still got something to offer.

Danny Welbeck, 26, forward

League games 2016/17: 8 starts, 7 substitute appearances

Goals (Assists) 2016/17: 2 (2)

Welbeck is a real professional - a classic Manchester United trainee. He’s noted for his excellent attitude and dedication but that hasn’t been enough to save his career from a savage run of injuries.

He’s never been a prolific scorer (only 10 league goals in three years at Arsenal) but his game is about more than that: pace, positioning and presence.

All of that was on show in the FA Cup final, where he was one of Arsenal’s best against Chelsea. 

Now with legendary Australian fitness coach Darren Burgess joining the club, Welbeck has never been in better hands – which might explain why the manager is prepared to stand by him as he seeks to find his best form again.

"I think he suffered a lot," Wenger said earlier this year. "But I hope, touch wood, he will now have a dream career." 

Alex Iwobi, 21, winger

League games 2016/17: 18 starts, 8 substitute appearances

Goals (Assists) 2016/17: 3 (3)

The new Theo Walcott? Or Raheem Sterling? Maybe Jordan Ibe? Well, yes, Iwobi could be as good as any of those if he gets his act together.

But the jury is still out on the youngster, who created such an impression when he burst onto the scene at the start of last season.

 

Yet by the end of the campaign, the 20-year was largely confined to the Under-23 squad.

"If I can overcome things that I believe were worse than what’s going on now, then surely I should be able to overcome this," he said after his demotion. 

But if there’s something to be inspired by, Iwobi’s story has parallels with Jesse Lingard, who used Manchester United’s 2013 tour of Sydney to ignite his career and become a mainstay at Old Trafford.

There's no doubting the talent between the Nigerian's toes. 

David Ospina, 28, goalkeeper

League games 2016/17: 1 start, 1 substitute appearances 

If you watched the 2014 FIFA World Cup with any intent, you’ll get wide-eyed about David Ospina – probably the best South American goalkeeper in the whole tournament, bettered only, perhaps, by Manuel Neuer and Tim Howard.

So there’s no doubting the Colombian’s quality. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into the domestic stage since Ospina made the switch from Nice immediately after that World Cup. 

He played 18 games in his first season but the arrival of Petr Cech from Chelsea a year later virtually stonewalled his Arsenal career.

Largely restricted to Cup matches ever since, Ospina needs to be pushing the veteran Czech if he’s ever going to win back the number one jersey.

Expect him to start at least one of these matches in Sydney and the pressure will be on immediately. 

Francis Coquelin, 26, midfielder

League games 2016/17: 22 starts, 7 substitute appearances
Goals (Assists) 2016/17: 0 (0)

So it turns out Francis Coquelin had the key role in talking Alexandre Lacazette into joining Arsenal.

"He has said only good things about Arsenal," Lacazette said. "He said I would not regret my decision to move here."

Unfortunately for Coquelin, some of the Arsenal faithful think that’s the most productive thing he’s done for the Gunners in the past year. 



He was spectacularly slated in one newspaper last year as being "erratic, overly aggressive, with poor positioning".

That was clearly too harsh, because Coquelin has showed himself as capable of everything you’d want a defensive midfielder to be.

Asking him to be a box-to-box midfielder is too much, however, and it remains to be seen whether Arsene Wenger will play Coquelin in his best position: screening the back four, breaking up the play and setting up the play from there. 



Thursday 13 July: Arsenal FC v Sydney FC, LIVE from 7:30pm (AEST) on SBS VICELAND, streamed online and via The World Game app

Saturday 15 July: Arsenal FC v Western Sydney Wanderers, LIVE from 7:30pm (AEST) on SBS VICELAND, streamed online and via The World Game app


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6 min read
Published 12 July 2017 at 9:38am
By Sebastian Hassett