Nearly 20,000 people were at the Exploria Stadium to watch Arsenal beat Orlando City by three goals to one.
As captivated as Florida fans seemed by the events on the field, there was one face in the crowd that caught particular attention. High in the welcome chairs, seated next to technical director Edu, was Arsenal’s next signing: Oleksandr Zinchenko.
The agreement for the Manchester City player is now effectively concluded, pending some formalities. “He’s an exceptional footballer and he’s someone who is going to bring a competitive edge to this dressing room,” manager Mikel Arteta confirmed in his post-match press conference.
Zinchenko’s impending arrival has raised questions. How does Arteta intend to use it? Will he play as a left-back or in central midfield?
“He can play both,” Arteta said. “He was a natural No.10 at the start of his career and we (City, during his time as an assistant there) converted him into a left-back, which can do a lot of things we want in our way to play.” Zinchenko does not just fill a void in the team – he fills two.
It’s a recurring theme among Arsenal’s recent acquisitions. Their main signings this summer – Zinchenko, Gabriel Jesus and Fabio Vieira – are united by a common attribute: versatility.
Zinchenko offers options in defense and midfield. Jesus has apparently come to North London to play as a centre-forward, but he’s also comfortable in wide areas. As for Vieira, the 22-year-old Portuguese told Athleticism he can play as No 8, No 10 or on either flank.
They give Arteta options – and with that, flexibility. This could be particularly useful in a season where he and his fellow Premier League managers are once again allowed to make five substitutions.
It is a conscious transfer strategy. “That’s one of the things (we’ve looked at) – where we can adapt structures, formations and rotations,” Arteta said. “We think playing with the same players in a different way to be more unpredictable is obviously important, and that’s why we signed these players.”
The ability to change nearly half of your starting XI in any league game will inevitably lead to greater tactical variety – and Arteta believes Arsenal need a squad that can deal with those increased demands. “It will be much more unpredictable trying to figure out what the opponent is going to do,” he added. “It’s changing, so whatever you planned at the start, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen in the end.”
This, of course, works both ways. In pre-season so far, Arteta has experimented with different forms. As well as what is becoming his usual 4-3-3 formation, he deployed two front men against Nuremberg in Germany’s training camp and temporarily switched to a back three in the game against Everton in Baltimore over the weekend. .
Arteta stuck with his usual full-back against Orlando, but there were still elements of experimentation.
In the second half, Ben White replaced Cedric at right-back. The return of William Saliba, another right centre-half, makes him an intriguing prospect. Certainly, White is closer in style to first-choice right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu than Cedric – and a quality player more comparable to the Japan international.
In attack, this second half saw Eddie Nketiah swap positions with Jesus. Although the Brazilian mainly played as a centre-forward, with Nketiah on the left, they sometimes swapped roles. They combined in the build-up to Arsenal’s second goal, with Jesus dispossessed in the Orlando box before Nketiah coolly stormed home.
Arsenal’s other goals came via Gabriel Martinelli and Reiss Nelson, with Facundo Torres equalizing for Orlando after sloppy defending from Pablo Mari and Nuno Tavares.
Albert Sambi Lokonga was one of Arsenal’s most impressive entertainers, playing a more advanced role as a left-hand No.8. The 22-year-old Belgian has usually been tipped as a future No.6 but Arteta now looks keen to explore his flexibility.
“We try (to find) where he feels comfortable, where he can develop in the best possible way,” Arteta said. “He’s really comfortable playing in this position, and we want to try to see what he can bring to this position. It’s true that now we also miss Emile (Smith Rowe) and Fabio (Vieira), so in this position we are a bit short, and he did well.
A number of key figures from the Arsenal hierarchy were seated around Edu and Zinchenko: general manager Vinai Venkatesham and board member Tim Lewis were present, as were Stan and Josh Kroenke. Arsenal will be happy with what they have done in the window so far, while acknowledging that there is still work to be done.
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Much of the focus will now be on releases.
Arsenal brought a 33-man squad to America – an unwieldy size. “We have to make decisions about which players we won’t use consistently and be fair and upfront with them,” Arteta said. “It’s a process that will start very soon.”
In the meantime, Arteta will continue to use these pre-season fixtures to tweak and tinker with.
The five-substitute rule and the heightened tactical demands it is likely to provide are never far from his mind.
In a sport that could develop a quality closer to chess, Arteta wants as many flexible pieces on the board as possible.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)