Arsenal: First fixtures of 2021/22 Premier League season
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Mikel Arteta was faced with more questions than answers on Tuesday evening as Arsenal fell to a lacklustre 2-1 defeat at the hands of Scottish Premiership side Hibernian at Easter Road. Martin Boyle’s early goal and Daniel McKay’s second-half header sealed an impressive win for the hosts, with the Gunners looking some way off the pace in their first pre-season friendly of the new campaign.
Emile Smith Rowe pulled one back for the Premier League giants during the closing stages after Nicolas Pepe’s earlier penalty was saved by Kevin Dabrowski, but the midfielder’s late contribution was not enough to snatch a result in Edinburgh.
The occasion represented a golden opportunity for Arteta to assess his squad ahead of the season, with the Spaniard opting for a blend of youth and experience for the trip to the Scottish capital.
The likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Willian and Mohamed Elneny were all selected to start the match alongside a number of promising young stars, with a multitude of changes made at half-time.
Harry Clarke, who spent last season on loan at Oldham Athletic in League Two, was given the nod in central defence while talented goalkeeper Arthur Okwonkwo was handed a chance to impress between the sticks.
The latter has been mentioned in connection with a possible first-team role in recent weeks, with Bernd Leno and Runar Alex Runarsson the only senior goalkeepers at the club.
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However, his performance against Hibs will have done little to convince Arteta that he can be trusted to feature in cup competitions this season.
Okwonkwo looked nervous and made a string of errors during the opening 45 minutes, gifting Boyle the easiest of finishes after failing to control a bouncing pass from Cedric Soares.
It seems as though a senior role at Arsenal may be a step too far from the 19-year-old at this early stage of his development, with Arteta able to benefit from prioritising his search for a new second-choice goalkeeper.
This would allow Okwonkwo to depart on loan in order to gain some much-needed experience and mitigate the daunting transition to first-team football.
Arsenal also struggled at the top of the pitch, with Eddie Nketiah unable to grab the occasion by the scruff of the neck in attack.
The England youth international was chosen to start over Alexandre Lacazette against Hibs, but failed to stake a claim for a regular spot in the side ahead of the new campaign.
He could not have missed an easier chance inside the opening five minutes when he capitalised on a defensive error to surge clean through on goal before inexplicably dragging his shot wide.
Nketiah had all the time in the world to bury his finish and give Arsenal a quick-fire lead and should really have done better for a player of his calibre.
It remains to be seen whether the forward will be able to play regularly next season after making just 17 appearances in the Premier League last time around.
He has been linked with moves to West Ham United and Brighton and Hove Albion in recent months, and you could argue that a fresh start may be just what Nketiah needs to truly realise his obvious potential.
Arsenal would also be able to bolster their transfer kitty by letting the 21-year-old go in a move that has the ability to suit all parties.
Despite the disappointing result against Hibs, there were a handful of decent performances from Arteta’s side, with Reiss Nelson carrying the majority of the attacking burden on the right flank during the first half of the match.
He was at the heart of Arsenal’s play before he was replaced by Nicolas Pepe at the interval, with the 21-year-old always looking for the ball and constantly striving to take on his opposite number.
Like Nketiah, Nelson has also been tipped to depart north London ahead of next season, with a number of Bundesliga clubs said to be keeping tabs on his situation.
However, his performance at Easter Road suggests that he can play an important role this season and potentially compete with Pepe, who struggled to impress at times last time around, for a starting berth if he can hit the ground running.
Arteta will have plenty of decisions to make this summer as he reshuffles his pack in advance of a renewed top-four challenge once the new campaign gets underway.
It will be crucial for the 39-year-old to act wisely over the coming weeks and months, and Tuesday’s performance will have drawn his attention to a number of pressing issues that will need to be addressed to stand a greater chance of succeeding next season.
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