July 19, 2013

The Asia Tour is halfway through and I think that so far we can sum it up with "so far, so good."

While we generally expect these games to be relatively easy and more of an opportunity for the squad to try some new things out, see what works, and stretch their legs a bit, last year's tour proved to be trickier. We fell behind against the Malaysia XI before eking out a 2-1 win and could only manage a draw against Kitchee FC.

This time around, the results have been… more positive. On Sunday Arsenal put seven past the Indonesia Dream Team. A few days later, Arsenal notched another seven goals against the Vietnam national team.

In Jakarta, it was Theo Walcott who opened the scoring, but Olivier Giroud was arguably the star of the show. Within five minutes after coming on, the Frenchman had two goals to his name. His second was especially impressive.

Regarding Giroud's performance, Arsène Wenger said, "I like Olivier very much. He had his first year, he scored 17 goals in all competitions and he needed to adapt. I am sure he will be even stronger next season."

Giroud impressed again in Vietnam by picking up a hat-trick in the opening 45 minutes. If you are following at home, that's five goals in just 65 minutes.

But the bigger picture is that Arsenal are flying. Despite the final scoreline, Vietnam provided some decent competition and Arsenal fought through some oppressive heat. Wenger noted that, "For us of course it was a good preparation for the season. Vietnam started very quick, very strong, and the first minutes were for them. But after that on our first chance we scored and we scored some great goals." We're not at regular-season fitness yet, but signs look good.

Aside from Giroud, we have seen some other really positive performances. Several of the young players have shined – especially 17-year-old striker Chuba Akpom who scored against Indonesia and picked up a brace in Vietnam.

Per Mertesacker spoke up about the good mix of potential and experience in the squad right now. As far as he sees it, the one thing they need to find is consistency. "We did that last season when we really had to, but this time we have to be ready from the very start. Therefore you need your experience and for the potential to come out as well.”

For Theo, things are looking very bright indeed. He's even talking about challenging for the league title. "We know it's a very long campaign but we're all very excited about our prospects." His confidence touches on something we're heard a lot about in recent months. Each of the three teams that finished above Arsenal in the table last season has a new manager.

Mikel Arteta elaborated on that, saying "When you bring in a new manager, you bring new ideas and you need to adapt, so if we can catch them [our rivals] early and get a good start - which we've not done in the last few years - then we're going to have a chance."

Even Wenger discussed manager changes in one his press conferences. He, however, seemed less sure of the impact. "It feels like it should be [more open], but it is not who sits on the bench who will be the most important - it is the players on the pitch. That, at Chelsea and United hasn’t changed a lot, at City it has changed a bit more. But there could be more changes coming in."

Of course, the talk of the tour so far isn’t what happened on the pitch. It's not even about any Arsenal  player. It's about a Vietnamese supporter dubbed "The Running Man." If you haven’t already seen it, the fan ran alongside the Arsenal bus as it made its way through the streets of Hanoi. For five kilometers. Heat, trees and even a lightpost couldn’t stop the guy. His persistence was rewarded when the bus pulled over to let him on board to meet the players and have his shirt signed.

Looking ahead, the team is now in Japan gearing up for a couple of games against two J-League teams. The first comes on Monday in what is sure to be a special match against Nagoya Grampus. Not only is that the team Wenger managed for a couple of years before he joined Arsenal, but it's also the hometown of Ryo Miyaichi. The 20-year-old Japanese winger has been front-and-center on this leg of the tour and is really looking to make an impact this season after a couple of loan spells with Bolton and Wigan.

As well as the tour is going so far, there are still plenty of questions that need answering. Among them: How will this squad perform against stronger competition? How will individual players improve on last season? And the big one, will Arsenal bring in any more fresh talent to shore up the ranks? Only time will tell… but then again, there is still a long time to go before the first games that count.

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Kevin Mooney 19 Jul 2013