How will Arsenal make the pieces fit?
LONDON -- The two loudest cheers of the day bookended -- in fact added to -- its biggest oddity. Yaya Sanogo's 26th-minute tumble through the air and backheel had both broken his Arsenal duck and mitigated for a shank, 10 minutes previously, that had extracted familiar exasperation from the faithful. The roof at Emirates Stadium was, by these preseason standards, raised by a curious mixture: amusement, forgiveness, generosity, acknowledgement of a fine move and finish.
Three more Sanogo goals, 47 more minutes, another loud cheer. This time it owed to the man they had all come to see, really. Alexis Sanchez, in shape, size and style the anti-Sanogo, cut through the hollering to take the Frenchman's central attacking position and the narrative, now, felt far closer to most comfort zones.
There is nothing to be lost in running through Sanogo's quartet of close-range finishes. The backheel had come after Aaron Ramsey's outrageous spin had sold Benfica defenders Benito and Sidnei; then came a straightforward finish after Joel Campbell, unselfish to an eye-opening degree, had laid on. His hat trick bordered on the absurd, an instinctive jab after his own miscue had stood the ball up ideally; the fourth was simple enough, too, after Artur could not hold Ramsey's shot. All six-yard finishes, all the admirable mark of a player whose rough edges are belied by the fact that he is not shy to display them.
But Wenger, as he readily offered in the postmatch news conference before following up with fulsome praise, added to the impression that today's devil lay in the detail. "That's what surprises you always. Not only you, but me, as well," he grinned after being asked straightaway about Sanogo's performance. The appraisal that followed was a fair one -- Sanogo's goalscoring record before his well-documented injuries was "frightening" and "now that we have worked very hard with him, we want him to stay here" -- but it was difficult to escape the conclusion that Wenger was discussing nice-to-haves and maybes rather than staples for the season's start.
That is why the biggest encouragement lay in the speed with which Arsenal set about their task. Nicolas Gaitan should have put Benfica in the lead 11 minutes in, but thereafter -- or at least for the next 40 minutes or so -- this was Wenger's side on turbo. It was easy to see how Sanchez could fit into this: Tomas Rosicky, playing in the position Mesut Ozil might be expected to fill when the season has worn in, remains the brightest 33-year-old around; Aaron Ramsey seems to have added iotas of bulk and zip to go with his lighter shade of hair; watch Spanish right-back Hector Bellerin, just 19, hare up the flank during the opening period and you could see exactly what is expected of Mathieu Debuchy over the next year or two.
This was a decisive Arsenal -- one that, until the game began to fade, rarely dwelt on the ball in midfield and almost never allowed an admittedly makeshift, unfamiliar Benfica defence to regroup after losing the ball. This was Arsenal as they would wish to be on bigger stages, dominating the ball but using it like a rapier, too.
Critical to this was debutant -- even if it didn't quite feel that way -- Joel Campbell, although it is hard to shake the feeling that his long-term future may lie elsewhere. The Costa Rican meant business from his eyrie on the right of the attack, tracking back into his own box to rob Ola John in the opening minutes and thereafter providing a slippery, direct, twisting threat at the other end. A screw wide on 16 minutes from Ramsey's clever lofted ball looked bad but was far from the first time he had exposed the Portuguese side; his goal on 40 minutes, which came after swapping to the left, was a superior version of his strike against Uruguay at the World Cup, volleying in cleanly after Bellerin showed he could match his endeavour with a neat, clipped ball to the edge of the box.
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Campbell, said Wenger after the game, was "good on the ball, creative, with a good balance between good individual skill and a collective mentality." There was a discernible emphasis on the latter: It is exactly this that Campbell will have been put to work on since returning to training with Arsenal. His loan spells -- certainly those at Lorient and Real Betis -- saw bright signs tempered by pointed remarks about his teamwork. It was something that certainly did not escape the Arsenal staff. Wenger's news conference proclamations are notoriously opaque but, in saying that "there is no reason to let him go," the Gunners boss gave a sense that Campbell may yet have a chance.
There is also the sense that Sanchez's adaptation may be a deciding factor. It did not take a lot for him to draw gasps of admiration on Saturday afternoon, although there was end product when he teed up a noticeable beefed-up Francis Coquelin to rap against the post in the game's last action. "He can play on the flank and through the middle," confirmed Wenger. "He is not fit yet, but in one week, he should be much better."
And that, in the end, was the day's hanging question. Sanchez's urgent, gladiatorial style fits the mould that Wenger seems, at last, to have rediscovered -- and if he settles in, then more than one position is covered. Olivier Giroud is there to skin other cats; Oxlade-Chamberlain, never the most prone to circumspection, looked sharp and direct; Theo Walcott, one hopes, will return as the player he was. You had the feeling throughout this thorough dissection of a troubled opponent that, while the headline-makers were working exactly as Wenger intends to over the coming months, they were simply keeping things warm for the players he expects to do the job.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.