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Arsenal reflect on MLS All-Star Game victory
It’s hard to imagine any Premier League footballer getting starstruck on the pitch, much less an Arsenal player. But twenty-year-old Gunner Chuba Akpom couldn’t help feeling a rush of excitement as he stepped onto the pitch alongside his childhood heroes in the MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on Thursday night.
“I was playing against players I played with on FIFA when I was younger – Drogba, Villa, Pirlo – players that you watch in World Cups and in big tournaments,” he told reporters after the match. “I just think ‘wow, I want to get to that standard.’ So it was nice to share the same pitch with them – I was always learning from them.”
The English forward came on as a late second-half substitute alongside young teammates Alex Iwobi, Gedion Zelalem, and Jeff Reine-Adelaide, who gave Arsenal an injection of pace and energy up top that proved decisive on the night. Akpom tapped home a late winner for Arsenal from Nacho Monreal’s cutback with four minutes to go, sealing a 2-1 victory for Wenger’s men over the All-Stars.
“We train with each other day so I knew what Nacho (Monreal) was going to do. I knew what he was looking at. I just tried my best to anticipate where he was going to go and thankfully I found a bit of space and it was there,” Akpom said.
The twenty-year-old forward is eyeing a first-team breakthrough this season and the goal will undoubtedly give him a huge boost of confidence. It might potentially open up new first-team opportunities as well.
“I’m just working as hard as I can,” he said. “The boss knows what he’s doing – he’s one of the best managers in the world, he is the best manager in the world. He knows what he’s doing. My job is just to work as hard as I can and wait for an opportunity and I’ll be patient until I get it.”
For Wenger’s part, such a goal was exactly what he was looking for from the All-Star Game.
“For me, it’s a good opportunity to see many young players,” said the Frenchman. He expressed his satisfaction with the performances of numerous youngsters, adding: “Individually, I would say in the first half [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain was very dangerous and exceptionally strong. The players who joined us just now like [Rob] Holding and [Granit] Xhaka did well. And I thought [Joel] Campbell in the first half did well.”
Campbell, for one, scored Arsenal’s opener in their 2-1 victory with a penalty in the eleventh minute. Wenger was pleased that the Gunners were able to set the tone early, saying: “We are in a very hard training program at the moment, so you never know how tired the players are when you go into the games. It was good to see that we were in good shape. We’ve had two hard days just before we played today in our training sessions and it was good to see that everybody did well.”
Although Wenger is famously adverse to pre-season friendlies, he hopes to take something from the game heading into the coming season. “I believe what is important for us in this kind of game is to analyze what aspect of our game we do well,” he said. “I feel that in the first half we did good in keeping possession and going very quickly on transitions behind, and had good penetrating runs in the final third, so that was positive.”
Arsenal’s organization and fluidity eventually triumphed over the All-Stars’ flash but Wenger was nonetheless impressed with his opponents.
“The MLS team was exceptional,” he said. “Exceptionally strong. Look at the results for the MLS All-Star Games made in the recent years. In the last four years, they won three times. When I looked at the players on the team sheet I thought that could be a very difficult game for us, and it was.”
But it’s not quite like playing a Premier League rival.
“It is, I would say overall, less aggressive,” the Frenchman said. “These players come for a show and they’re happy to be together. It’s not life or death like when we play against a club. So the contacts are a bit less strong and it’s a more friendly game than it is usually when you play against a club. But you had top-quality players on the pitch together, and you feel that every time you make a mistake, they can take advantage of you.”