Arsenal were spared the embarrassment of losing to a spirited Malaysia XI thanks to two late goals from Thomas Eisfeld (87) and Chuks Aneke (90) on an interesting evening at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil. Before the game I think it is safe to assume that most Arsenal fans (me included) thought that this game would be a walk in the park; Malaysia are ranked 157th in the world and we expected an exciting game with lots of goals. We beat them 4-0 last year, so why should this year be any different?
To their credit, Malaysia looked like a threat from the beginning, taking full advantage of sloppy passing with quick counter-attacking football. Some of the Arsenal players were clearly struggling with the heat and the poor quality of the pitch hardly helped. Vito Mannone (the only Arsenal player to play the full 90 minutes) was lucky to only concede one goal as Malaysia were not afraid to shoot from outside the box and created several good chances in the first half.
Arsene Wenger opted to start with a mixture of regular first-team and emerging youth team players, safe in the knowledge that he could make as many substitutions as possible. All of the outfield players were then changed at half-time. The team in the first-half was undoubtedly the “stronger” of the two sides, but the second-half side looked more comfortable and ultimately proved to be more effective. You would think that if Wenger was making 10 substitutions at half time that he might consider going the whole way and swapping the keeper too, but apparently that thought didn’t cross his mind. I would have liked to see Szczesny get a game.
Maroune Chamakh had Arsenal’s best chance of the first half, volleying a fantastic long-ball from Abou Diaby. André Santos, a slightly bizarre inclusion on the wing, wasted a few good opportunities, while Gervinho made some of his usual good runs. Abou Diaby was arguably Arsenal’s Man of the Match, looking good on his return from a long-term injury. His passing was sublime and he makes powerful runs from midfield. The half looked like ending 0-0 until Francis Coquelin did not close down Azmi Muslim, who fired a stunning 30-yard shot straight past Mannone.
The second half was more of the same, with Arsenal unable to work their way back into the game. Benik Afobe had a brilliant opportunity to go round the keeper, but instead hit his shot straight at him, and then hit the post from a quick free kick. Ryo Miyaichi and Theo Walcott worked well to create chances, but it was Nico Yennaris who turned provider, with a nice cut back for Thomas Eisfeld to fire into the goal. Only 2 minutes later, Chucks Aneke (who put in a great performance with fantastic long-range passing) played a one-two with Ignasi Miquel just outside the box, resulting in a shot that was deflected into the goal.
The commentators on ESPN were very quick to judge Arsenal on today’s performance, making endless comments about how the match was a “must-win”. I disagree. Ultimately, this game was a pre-season match designed to give our players a run around and not to be representative of things to come in the season. Pre-season matches such as this represent an opportunity for Wenger to experiment with the tactics and formation and assess some of the younger players. My major criticism is that Arsenal’s defense did not look tight as a unit, but we were missing the likes of Mertesacker, Koscielny and Sagna. This is something that Steve Bould will have to work on before the start of the season. Abou Diaby was the stand out player, and I am looking forward to having him back in the team this season.
“We played two sides and I felt both did well. The first half was played at a high pace and overall it was a good workout for us against a good Malaysian team,” Wenger said.
“Every year they play faster, quicker and stronger. We had to be patient to win the game but the result was less important than the workout.
“We got the quality of the game we wanted and that is very positive and we got through it without any injuries.”
“Overall we still have some tactical work to do and some physical work, but don’t forget that some players have had only two or three days’ training. Some others have had a maximum of seven or eight, so physically we are far from what we can produce.”