World Famous Luchador
By Art de Roché
Fewer than 24 hours after Mikel Arteta’s first team beat Crystal Palace 2-0, the Spaniard was present at Meadow Park as two of his senior squad members turned out for the under-21s.
Early last season, Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun were given game time in Premier League 2 to keep sharp and match fit. This time around, Marquinhos and Takehiro Tomiyasu started a 3-1 victory over Manchester United.
Under-21s head coach Mehmet Ali, who replaced Kevin Betsy last month after joining as his assistant in January, has been in dialogue with the first team and there are clear instructions for his team to prepare players for Arteta’s style.
“Kevin was outstanding at giving the players a licence and freedom to express themselves within a team structure,” Ali said post-match. “That was one of his biggest strengths along with linking the academy and what Mikel was looking for.
“Before I even got the role, I spoke to first-team staff as well as academy staff to get an understanding of what they wanted from the under-21s this year. It could change throughout the season, but we try to be a fluid 4-3-3, be aggressive without the ball, try and get into dangerous areas to dominate the game.”
That communication continued ahead of the opening weekend of the season.
“Marquinhos’ first training session with us was (on Friday),” Ali said. “He’s been with the first team and working very hard. I got a really good brief from Albert (Stuivenberg, first-team assistant manager) and the first-team staff on what they wanted from him, then it was my job to relay that information to him and make sure it links with what he’s doing with the first team.”
The 19-year-old Brazilian featured for Arteta in pre-season, but competitive first-team opportunities could be scarce with Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe, Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson as wide options. Premier League 2 appears an appropriate proving ground before the Europa League begins next month.
Arteta, who saw the first team beat Palace on Friday, was at Meadow Park on Saturday (Photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Marquinhos’ physical strength is what stood out at Meadow Park. Receiving the ball on the halfway line with a man on his back, he was able to hold off the challenge, spin and drive into the final third.
He tended to cut back onto his left foot, so when Matt Smith laid the ball onto the Brazilian, it came as a surprise when he attacked around the outside of his opposition full-back and shot with his right foot. Goalkeeper Dermot Mee could not hold the strike and Khayon Edwards reacted quickly to equalise.
Arteta prizes unpredictability in players, so showing promise on the inside and outside will benefit Marquinhos.
Just before half-time, he received another Smith pass and allowed the midfielder to overlap before drifting inside to shoot. He later came off the right to place a shot into the far corner after his initial effort was blocked and then picked up an assist, playing an outside-of-the-boot pass into Miguel Azeez who made it 3-1.
“He’s a left-footed inverted winger playing off the right,” said Ali of Marquinhos. “He’s got the licence to come inside and combine with the centre-forward or get shots off, but we try to have aggressive full-backs and midfielders who also support at the right times.
“You see Bukayo (Saka)’s goal (against Palace), I know it was an own goal, but he goes on the outside, gets a cross in and it’s 2-0 to the first team. He (Marquinhos) has the freedom to decide whether he goes inside or out, but it’s our job to make sure we’re getting the ball to our front-half players and then letting them show what they can do.”
Patience will be key with Marquinhos. He impressed but there were moments when his youth was clear. At times, he was trying to buy fouls that were not there as well as rushing long passes. It is also not clear where his short-term opportunities may come from.
“That information hasn’t been relayed to me,” Ali said. “I’m sure the first team will have a plan. Our job in the under-21s is to be flexible and adaptable for whatever the first team needs.”
Behind Marquinhos, however, there was a player who has already proven his first-team credentials.
Ali’s earlier point about aggression without the ball was evident immediately against United. In the opening 10 minutes, Tomiyasu showed his anticipation to pick up loose passes in the opposition half when Arsenal’s press (led by James Olayinka stepping up from midfield) was successful.
Tomiyasu, left, with Albert Sambi Lokonga (Photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
“We’re always guided by the first team in terms of players coming down and he (Tomiyasu) was great,” Ali added. “Even yesterday in training, his application. We had a team meeting this morning, his focus, eye contact and body language, he’s a true professional and that’s why he is where he is. It’s great for our lads to see that. In terms of his performance, he did everything we asked of him.”
The Japan international was brought off at half-time in what appeared to be a planned substitution. He had looked assured in and out of possession. These being his first minutes of the season, the execution was not always pinpoint, but he held his own and as he usually did last season, did not restrict his play to the touchline.
He moved into more central areas to receive the ball in Arsenal’s defensive, middle and attacking thirds, which helped maintain control.
It will likely be a matter of building match sharpness and fitness for Tomiyasu before he returns to the first team. That being said, he may face more stern competition in defence than last season.
For Marquinhos, he should have shown enough to merit interest from the on-looking Arteta, who will be hoping the under-21s can continue to smooth the passage to the first team.