John Dykes relives fond memories of Arsenal’s last visit to Singapore as we prepare to welcome the Gunners to the Lion City for the 2018 International Champions Cup in July.
When the longer-serving members of Arsenal’s squad step off the plane at Changi Airport for July’s International Champions Cup (ICC), they will do so armed with positive memories of their last visit to Singapore.
The likes of Aaron Ramsey and Laurent Koscielny will be quick to assure more recent signings like Alexandre Lacazette, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that things will go swimmingly for the tourists both on and off the pitch. Just as they did three years ago.
Arsenal’s 2015 visit to Singapore was as part of the Premier League’s Asia Trophy. Arsenal were the headline act at a tournament also featuring Everton and Stoke City, with a Singapore Select XI completing the line-up. The Gunners captured the Trophy with a dazzling 3-1 victory over Everton in the final.
Tellingly, they also did so in front of a crowd of 52,107 at the magnificent National Stadium. It was the biggest single match-day attendance in the history of the tournament, which attracted 82,000 fans over two days.
The Gunners delivered some stunning football in the final, playing with an intensity rarely seen in pre-season friendlies, and they did so against a magical backdrop: fireworks lit up the night over the Singapore Sports Hub complex, while in the distance fighter jets streaked across the skies over Marina Bay as Singapore rehearsed for its upcoming National Day celebrations.
I was lucky enough to be in the Stadium that night. Having witnessed every Asia Trophy since the tournament’s inception in 2003, I knew without a doubt I was watching by far the tournament’s most compelling instalment.
The Premier League’s Executive Chairman, Richard Scudamore, was effusive in his praise for the Singapore event, labelling it “the best ever”, noting the commitment shown by the visiting clubs and adding that they had been, “blown away by the reception that they received from fans and the people of the Lion City”.
The commitment to putting a show was something that sprung from the clubs’, and in particular Arsenal’s, delight at the way things had gone from the moment they arrived in Singapore. Pre-season tournaments such as the ICC require clubs to combine essential pre-season fitness and team-bonding work with the fulfilment of commercial commitments (kit launches and activations for sponsors), as well as delivering a spectacle on the pitch in front of their fans on match-days.
Two days before the Asia Trophy final, I had a long chat with a relaxed Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery’s legendary predecessor as Gunners manager. The Frenchman said he was delighted with the slick and highly-professional way their hosts had handled Arsenal’s visit: from accommodation and training facilities to commercial, community and fan engagements. Wenger as much as guaranteed that, having played a team featuring several “fringe” players in their opening game against the Singapore XI, he would be sending out his superstar first-teamers to really turn on the style in the final. He was true to his word.
With the trophy secured, Wenger issued this glowing review of the club’s week in Singapore: “For us it was a perfect trip because we had fantastic conditions, fantastic fans in the hotel every day and, overall, we came here with 27 players, we had two convincing games with no injury after a week, so that’s fantastic.”
Remember, this was the same Wenger who took years to come around to the concept of travelling beyond continental Europe in pre-season. For more than a decade, he had favoured a pre-season tour of Austria, as he was wary of the effects of jet-lag on his players if they went further afield. By 2015, the Frenchman had come around to the commercial necessity of engaging with fans in Asia especially. Any reservations he may have had about the quality of the conditioning and tactical work he could do so far from the Emirates faded fast as his squad blossomed in Singapore.
I can’t see any reason why @Arsenal fans should be unhappy with the Unai Emery appointment. In tune with the modern game, a serial trophy winner at big clubs… surely that’s what they’ve been crying out for.
— JohnDykes (@JohnDykesFC) May 21, 2018
After the demolition of Everton, with the goals coming from Theo Walcott, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil, Wenger spoke about his players having “clicked” in terms of the vision of the game he wanted them to play. Emery will undoubtedly hope to see something similar as he works for the first time with his squad.
The beauty of the ICC is that it offers clubs an opportunity to play high-quality games in a pre-season environment. Moreover, the fans who will again flock to the National Stadium from Singapore, Asia and beyond, will do so secure in the knowledge that they will be seeing big-name players on show for Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid and Arsenal. Those who witnessed the Gunners’ last visit will also know that those players will rise to the occasion and deliver rich entertainment when they are given the right stage upon which to do so.
Fans who come to this year’s ICC will be fortunate enough to see Unai Emery’s Arsenal taking their first steps ahead of a season when they seek to reclaim their position at the very top of the English and European game. It’s a compelling prospect – one that is lent added appeal by recent memories of Arsenal turning on the style in Singapore.
Catch Arsenal, Atletico Madrid and PSG LIVE at the 2018 International Champions Cup in Singapore from July 26 to 30. Get your tickets now!