Arsenal crash out with a toothless display

Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at home to Southampton on Wednesday might only have been in the EFL Cup, so in the grand scheme of things isn’t that important for the rest of the season, and may even benefit Arsenal with less fixtures in January, but it was still an incredibly frustrating night at Emirates Stadium as a rotated team failed to take their chance to press claims for regular first-team starts.
With 10 alterations made to the starting XI from the weekend’s game with Bournemouth, some have been quick to question why Arsene Wenger made so many changes as it was a quarter-final, but I have no issues with the team he selected. With important league games coming up, and the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez being so integral to the team, they have to be protected and kept fresh where possible. If anything, the lacklustre performances from some of their replacements on Wednesday night only reinforced the need to keep the key players fit and justified the decision to give them a breather in the League Cup.
The bigger issue was how the team picked didn’t gel together and lacked the cutting edge to create enough good chances against a well-drilled Southampton team. Arsenal’s team wasn’t like League Cup games in seasons gone-by where the team sheet was full of unknowns from the youth team, it was virtually all first-teamers who needed some game time. Jenkinson, Gabriel, Gibbs, Coquelin, Elneny, Ramsey and Lucas Perez are all hardly novices in the game, and of the other youngsters who appeared, Alex Iwobi, Rob Holding and Emi Martinez have already made important first-team contributions. What was frustrating was how Arsenal seemed to lack intensity and focus for a lot of the game, which hadn’t been the case in previous rounds against Nottingham Forest and Reading. The tournament might not be high on the priority list for the club, but for some of the players involved on Wednesday, it represented their best chance of first-team appearances in the new year, and to see the rather meek exit from the competition was disappointing.
Southampton were much more efficient in front of goal as they scored from their only two real attacks in the first half. First Jordy Clasie hammered the ball in from the edge of the area after Rob Holding had to make a scrambling block, before Ryan Bertrand doubled the lead when his shot snuck between the legs of Holding and into the far corner past Emiliano Martinez. Having gained an early lead, Southampton were set up well to soak up any Arsenal pressure with a flat midfield five in front of a solid back four, with Shane Long as the option up front to play on the break.
Unfortunately for the Gunners, Carl Jenkinson endured a difficult evening at right-back as he still tries to find some match sharpness after coming back from a serious knee injury. With Hector Bellerin still out and Mathieu Debuchy only lasting 15 minutes against Bournemouth, Arsene Wenger does have a problem at right-back if Jenkinson continues to struggle. Ainsley Maitland-Niles did well when he came on in the second-half, but the young midfielder has extremely limited experience of playing in that position, so it would be a gamble to play him there in the coming weeks. Gabriel did well enough as a make-shift full-back against Bournemouth, but the Gunners do lose something in their attacking game when a centre-back has to cover as a full-back. My suspicion is that Jenkinson will continue to get a chance, partly out of necessity, and partly because the manager does have an appreciation that he is still getting up to speed following the knee injury. As Southampton did to good effect in the EFL Cup, it will be area that opposition teams will look to exploit while Bellerin remains unavailable, so the winger in front of the right-back will have to offer more protection than Jeff Reine-Adelaide did on Wednesday.
The other conundrum for Arsene Wenger to solve that wasn’t made any clearer on Wednesday is the centre of the midfield. It’s been confirmed that Santi Cazorla is going to have surgery to sort his ankle problem, so is likely to be out for a further three months. All four of the players competing for the two central positions behind Mesut Ozil made appearances on Wednesday, and none of them were particularly convincing. Mohamed Elneny went off feeling unwell, and Granit Xhaka did improve Arsenal’s tempo when he came on, but there will now be an expectation on the Swiss international to use his range of passing to try and control the pace of games in the way Cazorla does.
Aaron Ramsey also got an opportunity to play as the number 10 on Wednesday, and struggled to make an impact in his preferred position. The Welshman has had a stop-start season because of injury, and it’s been hard for him to gain form as he’s been moved all the way around the midfield, but as one of the most experienced players in the team on Wednesday, there was an expectation that he’d grab his chance to impress in the freer role. It might have been different had Alexis Sanchez been up front, but Ramsey didn’t gel with Lucas Perez as the two looked on a different wavelength for most of the game.
Rather than providing encouragement that the Arsenal squad has plenty in reserve to deal with an injury problems, the defeat to Southampton raised more questions rather than give Arsene Wenger answers to a few potential problem positions in his team. If the Gunners win at West Ham on Saturday, this defeat will be forgotten quickly. But it won’t change that this game felt like a chance missed both in terms of progressing in the EFL Cup, and for certain players to stake a claim to be more involved in the first team.

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Ox at the double as Arsenal cruise through 

Given Arsenal’s last League Cup tie with Reading produced 12 goals, a comeback from 4-0 down and even two goals for Marouane Chamakh, there was no way Arsenal’s 4th round EFL Cup tie against the Royals on Tuesday was likely to go in a similar way. Arsenal did field the same goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, who played in that crazy game four years ago, but he showed how he’s improved in that time with an assured display to keep a clean sheet. 
But most of the action, unsurprisingly, was at the other end as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a brace to send the Gunners into the quarter-finals. Arsenal could, and should, have had more, but overall it was a satisfying night for Arsene Wenger as his rotated team got the job done, and players returning from injury got much-needed competitive minutes on the pitch.
The two goals take Oxlade-Chamberlain to five for the season, already his most prolific in his Arsenal career, and was his second and third goals in a week after netting against Ludogorets in the Champions League. In some ways, what is encouraging is that it still feels like there is a lot of room for improvement in his game, even with his increasing productivity in front of goal. There are still plenty of moments in matches where  he makes the wrong decision or holds onto the ball for too long, and if he can sharpen up that area of his game, there’s no reason why, having already got to five goals, he can’t go on and score 10 or even 15 this season if he can break into the starting XI regularly.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal owed a lot to his growing confidence as he received the ball just outside the box after a kamikaze short goal-kick from Ali Al-Habsi in the Reading goal. The Ox sized up the defender in front of him, jinked a little bit and fired across the goalkeeper perfectly into the far corner. Rather than dithering over the options he had available to him, he had a clear idea of what to do when he got control of the ball and executed it superbly. 
The goal came at a good time as Arsenal had dominated the match in the first half, so it settled any nerves down in a team that understandably lacked a bit of fluency at times because of the number of changes made, but still was comfortably on top in the game. 
The second goal of the evening came in the 78th minute and avoided any tension in the final knockings of the match. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s finish from the edge of the box was well struck and would have required a very good save to stop it, but Al-Habsi was left stranded as the ball deflected off a defender and flew into the net. That Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to get a shot off owed a lot to the work of Rob Holding to dribble to the by-line after a deep corner, and of Olivier Giroud to lay the ball off to the winger when he was in space on the edge of the box.
While the goals of Oxlade-Chamberlain were big positives from the evening for Arsene Wenger, the return of Olivier Giroud was also most welcome. Whatever you read into the slightly mysterious toe injury Giroud had, he’s definitely been missed in certain games as a different option up front. In general, the front four has operated brilliantly this season, but when things haven’t been going well, it would have been great to have the Frenchman available to mix things up. In his 25-minute cameo, Giroud immediately challenged the centre-backs and would have scored with a good header from a free-kick but for an excellent stop from Al-Habsi. He offers something completely different to anyone else in the squad, so it’s great to see him back.
The other returning player was Carl Jenkinson. When he went on loan to West Ham two years ago, and then again last season, I thought we’d never get to see him play for Arsenal again. But with Mathieu Debuchy just disappearing off the face of the earth, and Jenkinson back from a serious knee injury, he was back in the side on Tuesday. He might not be the most technically gifted player, but Arsenal could do a lot worse than him as the back-up right-back. For fans, it really feels like we’ve got a representative on the pitch when Jenkinson plays as he is living the dream for all of us that had Arsenal wallpaper and posters of the team on our walls growing up. For someone who hasn’t played a competitive game for nine months, and hasn’t played for the club since May 2014, he put in a good showing. Bellerin can’t play every game and I’d have no concerns about Jenkinson stepping in if required.
For the youngsters who made appearances, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Rheine-Adelaide were both good in possession and didn’t look out of place in the game. It will be interesting to see what the dynamic is like in the main Premier League starting XI is by the time the quarter-final with Southampton comes around at the end of November. It’ll come after a tougher run of fixtures including Spurs, Manchester United and PSG, so that will likely dictate if Wenger uses any of the more experienced players to try and get to the last four. If a similar line-up does play in the quarter-final, they’ll have a good chance of going through because the fringe and young players are feeding off the confidence that is building around the club at the moment, and they’ll be keen to keep this EFL Cup run going after scoring six and conceding none in the two games so far. 

The SMR Arsenal Squad Review – The Defenders

With the season over and a trophy in the cabinet, I’m going to assess the season for each member of the Arsenal squad and rate them. I’m sure there’ll be some disagreements about some of my ratings, so feel free to comment at the bottom with your thoughts. Next up, it’s the defenders.
 
3. Bacary Sagna
It’s a massive shame that the Frenchman will be leaving Arsenal as he was back to his best in 2013/2014. I can’t think of a bad game that Sagna had, and after some injury problems in previous seasons, he was able to stay fit for the majority of the season.
Sagna was a warrior for Arsenal, didn’t shirk a tackle and was always solid when defending. Some of his best matches were when he covered injuries as a centre-back, with particularly impressive displays at Fulham, Sunderland and Norwich when pressed into action in the middle.
I can’t be annoyed at him for running down his contract because he did give everything when he played for the club, but a potential move to Manchester City loses him a mark.
Season Rating: 7/10
 
4. Per Mertesacker
The BFG is awesome.
Mertesacker understands the fans, understands what it means to play for the club and has become one of the most consistent centre-backs in the Premier League. He knows he’s not blessed with great pace, so he has adapted his game accordingly and has developed a superb partnership with Laurent Koscielny. Despite giving away the penalty in the FA Cup semi-final, he came up with the vital equaliser and produced one of the singing performances of the season with his rendition of ‘Arsenal till I die’ at the cup victory parade.
He’s clearly loved, respected, and at times even feared, by his team-mates, and should Thomas Vermaelen seek regular football and leave this summer, Mertesacker has to be the club captain.
Season Rating: 8.5/10
 
5. Thomas Vermaelen
It was a difficult season for the club captain as he couldn’t hold down a regular place in the team because of the excellent form and partnership of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. He was also unfortunate with injuries as he would have got minutes earlier in the season had he not picked up a problem in pre-season.
When Vermaelen did play, he didn’t let Arsenal down. He put in some impressive performances, and his presence in the squad undoubtedly makes Mertesacker and Koscielny work hard because they know there is a quality player waiting to take their place. I hope Vermaelen stays because he remains an excellent centre-back and makes the competition for places strong in the squad.
Season Rating: 6/10
 
6. Laurent Koscielny
Like Sagna, Koscielny is a warrior when playing for Arsenal. His partnership with Mertesacker is much talked about because it’s been so good, with Koscielny’s pace being the perfect foil for Mertesacker’s height and organisation. The Frenchman is lightning across the ground and almost hasn’t had big enough pockets to fit the strikers in after his performances this season.
His knack of scoring crucial goals at the end-of-season is also very welcome. He took a whack from the goalkeeper, but it wasn’t a surprise to see Koscielny in the right place at Wembley to equalise in the cup final. He needs to give away fewer penalties, but otherwise there are very few weak areas in his game.
Season Rating: 8/10
 
17. Nacho Monreal
The Spaniard was in and out the team depending on the form and fitness of Kieran Gibbs. His competition with Gibbs for the left-back spot has made both players improve.
Monreal’s defending isn’t quite as tight as Gibbs’, and he doesn’t get to the by-line as much when going forward. However, he is still an excellent squad player to have considering that injury record of Gibbs means Arsenal need two good left-backs. The battle with Gibbs was probably the reason why Monreal missed out on the Spain World Cup squad as it would have been better for him to be playing regularly, but it was a sign of the increased squad strength in 2013/2014 that someone of the quality of Monreal struggled to hold down a regular place in the team.
Season Rating: 6/10
 
25. Carl Jenkinson
With Bacary Sagna staying fit for most of the season, Carl Jenkinson had fewer chances to impress at right-back in 2013/2014, but apart from a blunder against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup, he never let the club down when he played. He’s probably the best crosser at the club, and whipped one in so good against Hull in the Premier League that even Nicklas Bendtner couldn’t miss.
There were great performances in the North London derby at the Emirates and he played his part with a few appearances in the cup run. His moment of the season was undoubtedly the goal at Norwich. A true Gooner scoring a goal for the club he loves. It was beautiful.
It’ll be interesting to see if Arsene Wenger gives him the chance to step up when Sagna departs, and whilst I’m not sure if he’s ready, there’s no doubting that Jenkinson will give everything he has when wearing red and white.
Season Rating: 6/10
 
28. Kieran Gibbs
Kieran Gibbs is incredibly unlucky that England seem to produce excellent left-backs, because he should be playing regularly for his national team. How he wasn’t even mentioned when the media discussed possible people in the squad I don’t know.
Gibbs has been consistent, had less injuries and been part of a good Arsenal back four. The competition with Monreal has meant Gibbs had to improve to keep his place, and after missing out on some bigger games in the middle of the season, he re-established himself at the back-end of the campaign. He did come up with the miss of the season in the cup final, but fortunately the win means it’ll soon be forgotten!
Season Rating: 7.5/10
 
Listen to the Sam’s Match Reports podcast end-of-season awards special!
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