Arsenal go out but injuries are the biggest concern

I can quite comfortably say that the 3-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen from an Arsenal team. There were slightly mitigating circumstances because of injuries and changes to the team, plus it was in the least important of the four competitions, but that doesn’t change the fact it was not good enough both quality-wise and effort-wise from the Gunners.
I don’t think it’s a sign of things to come or a result that will affect the overall positivity surrounding the club at the moment, but it was just incredibly disappointing to see such an insipid performance from a team representing Arsenal Football Club.
Looking back at the week preceding the League Cup exit does show that the club is a good place, so while a cup defeat is always diapoitning, the biggest worry for the fans and Arsene Wenger is about the injuries picked up by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott. Within 20 minutes, both had to be replaced because of muscle injuries, and with Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere, Mikel Arteta and Danny Welbeck all unavailable, the Gunners’ squad is being stretched ahead of another big week with Bayern Munich and the North London derby following the weekend trip to Swansea.
It leaves the manager with very few options on the right of midfield, with Joel Campbell the only real recognised option left. The Costa Rican hardly inspired confidence that he’s ready to step and contribute with his showing in Sheffield on Tuesday night. The hope will be that when playing alongside Ozil et al, he’ll be able to raise his level compared to when he was playing alongside a few young rookies at Hillsborough. 
While I understand the frustration at Arsene Wenger’s team selection on Tuesday, the sight of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott walking down the tunnel with injuries highlighted exactly why he left out so many key players. It wasn’t out of disrespect to Sheffield Wednesday, it was to give his big guns a break and protect them for the bigger games ahead. We’d never hear the end of it if Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez made an appearance and then missed the next week because of picking up a knock in the Capital One Cup.
The loss of both quick options in the front three did contribute to Arsenal’s inability to create any chances in the game on Tuesday. I felt for Olivier Giroud as he had no service for the whole evening. He was fantastic against Everton because the midfielders looked to get the ball into him and play around the Frenchman. Despite running across the centre-backs and offering himself to receive the ball, Giroud never got it on Tuesday as the midfield seemed incapable of playing a forward pass. It was an incredibly tough night for youngster Glen Kamara on his debut in central midfield as, alongside Mathieu Flamini, there was no urgency or creativity in the middle of the pitch for Arsenal.
Arsenal’s back four did have a more experienced look to it, but was found wanting as the lack of game time afforded to three of the four that started the game really showed as they looked rusty. In particular, Mathieu Debuchy struggled. It’s a shame to see such a good player suffer a decline in the way he has done, but Hector Bellerin won’t have lost any sleep about his place in the team following the Frenchman’s performance.
It’s hard to have cohesion when a team is thrown together because of injuries and the need to rest others, but none of the youngsters and reserves stuck their hand up demanding to be involved in the first team more often. Some need to find form fast as the injuries picked up at Hillsborough now mean that Arsene Wenger will be relying on those who let him, and the travelling fans, down massively on Tuesday night.
Finally, a quick word on the abomination of a kit that Arsenal wore on Tuesday. It is an atrocious effort from Puma, and while it shouldn’t really make a difference, a large part of me thinks that it would have been harder for Arsenal to put in such a lethargic performance had they been wearing red and white (which was possible because of the hosts’ traditional colours) as it would have served as a constant reminder to the players of who they were representing.


Spurs torched by the Flame

It does feel as if Arsenal have experienced a bit of the worst and a bit of best that sport has to offer over the last few games. I, like many other fans, got extremely angry and frustrated watching the defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Chelsea, with my displeasure being directed at the team, the officials and opposition. There was a sense that Arsenal had been cheated out of the game at Stamford Bridge, a view backed up by subsequent FA actions for Diego Costa and Gabriel, and the club was in need of a bit of a lift.
No-one could ever have seriously predicted that said lift would be provided by Mathieu Flamini. Despite being a man of some excellent nicknames (the Flame, Flam, the Corsican), none of which that I can take credit for, and being a man who has always given his all when wearing the red and white, Mathieu Flamini hasn’t been particularly popular with supporters in the last year or so. While it is very true that he has his limitations, it’s never for a lack of effort or passion when playing for the Arsenal that has led to some indifferent performances from the Frenchman.
But this is one of the great things about sport that keeps us coming back. There can be a saturation of media coverage and analysis, but no-one can ever guarantee what will happen, and so Mathieu Flamini proved by becoming Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp in the same evening and winning Arsenal a North London derby.
Too often in football, partly fuelled by the hyped-up transfer market, there is a focus on what a player can’t do, rather than what they can do. On derby day at the Lane, Mathieu Flamini managed to make people forget what he can’t do with a spirited performance in his first game of the season, and realigned views on what he is capable of as a player.
In a Capital One Cup game that lacked a bit of cohesion because of the changes made by both sides, Flamini led the way with the drive and the determination you need when playing against Tottenham. When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first half shot was parried by Michel Vorm, Flamini was the surprise player who’d committed to chasing the shot in case of the ball coming back out, and he was rewarded with a left footed finish into the roof of the net.
Having made the point that sport remains unpredictable, there’s still plenty of occurrences that aren’t surprising. Moments after scoring, Flamini charged into Danny Rose and picked up a yellow card.
The Gunners did find themselves pinned back a bit after half-time as Tottenham looked to repeat the comeback victory they achieved in the most recent league meeting between the teams last season. Spurs got too much joy down Arsenal’s righ-hand side as Mathieu Debuchy struggled, and for a period in the second half, it felt as if Arsenal couldn’t keep hold of possession. The somewhat inevitable equaliser came when Calum Chambers could only divert a low cross past David Ospina.
At that stage, there only looked like one team who’d go on to win the match, and that team wasn’t Arsenal. Kieran Gibbs made a heroic goal-line clearance to deny Kane, and that moment seemed to spark Arsnal into life again. The introduction of Alexis into the fray gave the Gunners more of an outlet on the counter-attack, Aaron Ramsey was able to get on the ball a bit more and Arsenal looked to expose the pretty useless Fazio in the Spurs defence.
To avoid extra time, the match still needed someone to take responsibility and make the difference in the game. Step forward the Flame to set quite an average derby alight. As the ball dropped out of the North London sky 25 yards out from Tottenham’s goal with 12 minutes to go, it was the sort of inviting opportunity that usually ends with a ball volleyed miles back into the stands. Not if your name is Mathieu Flamini though. The Frenchman timed his approach perfectly and lashed a sweet volley into the bottom corner. The celebrations were wild after the initial shock of not believing that Mathieu Flamini had indeed just scored a beaut of a volley from outside the box.
For the remainder of the match, Arsenal were disciplined and sensible, and could have snatched a third goal on the break. Overall, there were plenty of positive performances for Arsene Wenger to take away from the game. After the suspect defensive showing in Zagreb, with the exception of the rusty Mathieu Debuchy, Arsenal’s back four looked pretty good with Kieran Gibbs particularly impressing. Per Mertesacker was a calming influence when Spurs built up a head of steam in the second half and, own goal aside, Calum Chambers looked much more assured than he did earlier in the season. 
But it was Mathieu Flamini’s night. He probably won’t get a game at the weekend and may still leave the club in the not too distant future, but he should now be a genuine cult hero. There haven’t been many better winning goals in a North London derby at a White Hart Lane. Mathieu Flamini, I salute you.

Disappointing cup exit shows rustiness of fringe players

No cup defeat is nice or welcome, but it’s hard for Arsenal to have any complaints about going out of the Capital One Cup on Tuesday after the 2-1 defeat against Southampton. The Saints looked like a more cohesive team with the much-changed Gunners line-up not creating enough to merit going through.
The main concern for Gooners from the performance was the showing from the fringe players in Arsene Wenger’s squad that needed the game time. It’s easy to criticism them, but in fairness it is difficult to come in from the cold and perform at your best without some match practise, especially against a well organised and in-form Southampton side. But, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable of Arsene Wenger to have expected more from Tomas Rosicky, Lukas Podolski and Joel Campbell.
Rosicky’s off-colour performance wasn’t because of a lack of effort as the Czech captain buzzed around the field in his normal style, but he was just off the pace and his judgement wasn’t as sharp as he’d want, which unfortunately led to Rosicky mistiming a challenge in the penalty area and gifting the visitors their equaliser from the spot.
As for Lukas Podolski, he seemed to disappear as the match went on, and he was hardly involved in the early stages as it was. The German can be an incredibly frustrating player to watch as he is a good finisher and has an absolute hammer of a left foot, but he’s always had a strange ability to go missing. He seemed to pass that trait onto Joel Campbell in the first half, as the Costa Rican didn’t take his opportunity to stake his claim to be more involved in the first team. Campbell saw more of a ball in the second half but Arsenal looked so much more dangerous as soon as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on to replace him on the wing.
Of the fringe first teamers who got a run out on Tuesday, incredibly, the least rusty was Abou Diaby. Sitting deep in midfield, the Frenchman sprayed a few good passes from deep positions and gave a tidy performance in his first start since 2012-2013. I’m a big Diaby fan and am desperate for him to get some luck and stay fit for a sustained period of time. If he does, he showed fans on Tuesday that he can a valuable option in central midfield with a physical presence that’s unmatched by other midfielders at the club.
Despite the defeat, Abou Diaby wasn’t the only positive from Tuesday. With the North London derby on the horizon, I was staggered to see Alexis Sanchez start the game, but the Chilean gave another example of his considerable talent with an absolute peach of a free-kick. He lacked support from others around him up front for most of the evening, but he still looked like the most likely Arsenal player to make anything happen. He’s still acclimatising to English football, but four goals so far for Arsenal is a good start. He’d bring the house down with another on Saturday.
In a competition where Arsene Wenger usually likes to blood the youngsters, it was mainly the back four which had a youthful appearance with three 19 year olds alongside Francis Coquelin, who had to fill in at left back. Considering the inexperience, they dealt with Southampton pretty well as it was only a penalty and a long range thunderbolt that gave the visitors the win. Isaac Hayden stood out in particular with an assured first start for the club.
Even though they did well, the lack of cover in defence was exposed by Wenger having to field such an inexperienced back four. They all acquitted themselves well, but Arsenal shouldn’t be in a position where a collection of 19 year olds are the next in line after a couple of injury in defence.
Considering the lack of cover at the back, not having an extra game in the next round of the Capital One Cup could help the squad stay fresh, but in midfield and attack, there are plenty of Arsenal players who could have used a cup run to boost their chances of playing in more first team games. It’s a shame Arsenal are out, but a derby win on Saturday and this game will be quickly forgotten.