Much-changed Arsenal put on a five-star performance

There’s always a risk making a lot of changes for a cup match, but with a few uninspiring ties drawn for the fourth round, and a full set of Premier League fixtures in the next midweek, alterations were inevitable across the 4th round of the FA Cup. A lot of teams suffered with sweeping changes as Liverpool went out to lower league opposition and Tottenham scraped past fourth-tier Wycombe Wanderers.
On seeing that Arsenal had made changes, critics of the FA Cup could have seen that as another example of a Premier League team not taking the competition seriously, but the Gunners put on a fantastic show to sweep Southampton aside in a 5-0 thrashing. Such is the depth and quality of Arsene Wenger’s squad this season, the starting XI he selected was still packed full of quality and players hungry to make an impression and get more regular game-time.
Southampton also made wholesale alterations after making the EFL Cup final in midweek, and their youngsters got a lesson from a vibrant and pacy Arsenal team. Arsenal still fielded a relatively experienced back four and front three generally had an experienced look to them, but the midfield trio was a bit more unfamiliar. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was playing out of position, with fellow doubled-barrellers Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Reine-Adelaide also playing in the middle. I was concerned pre-match that Arsenal would lack solidity with those three in the middle, but they controlled the tempo of the game superbly, and did the defensive work when needed. 
Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular took on the role of being the experienced man in the middle and was excellent. His range of passing was good, and with the pace up front with Welbeck, Walcott, Lucas and then Alexis all looking to run in behind the defence, he always had the option of pinging a ball over the defence from deep. Providing Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin were just rested on Saturday and don’t have injury problems, Oxlade-Chamberlain won’t be needed to fill in there in important league games, but it was encouraging to see him put in both a creative and disciplined performance. 
It was the Arsenal midfield that enabled them to grab control of the game early on and not let the hosts gain any momentum from a bouyant home crowd after their EFL Cup semi-final victory. A positive start was rewarded with a slick move involving Maitland-Niles and Lucas Perez. The Spaniard flicked a lovely pass through the Southampton defence for Welbeck to run onto and chip over the goalkeeper into the net for a goal on his first start following his injury nightmare. 
Welbeck doubled up shortly afterwards as Oxlade-Chamberlain played a fantastic pass over the defence, which Welbeck controlled well out the air and slid the ball under the advancing goalkeeper. To have Welbeck looking so sharp in front of goal after such a long time out is a testament to his hard work on the training ground and the work done by the medical staff. He could easily have snatched at either of the chances he had, but both goals were clinical finishes. He’s a player that is loved because of his work rate and desire to help the team, and he adds a different dimension to an Arsenal front-line.
With Welbeck fit and firing, it’s a tough choice for Arsene Wenger to have to make each week to pick a starting line-up. It was interesting to see Welbeck predominately play from the left against Southampton, with Lucas down the middle, so I suspect that when everyone is fit, Welbeck might play on that flank with Alexis playing centrally.
On the right, it’s likely to be Theo Walcott after he made a clinical return from a month out injured. He netted a third Arsenal goal at Southampton in the first half on Saturday as Welbeck and Lucas linked up, allowing the Englishman to square the ball for Walcott to score. 
With the tie virtually won, Arsenal were able to cruise through the second half, but they still looked keen to add to the score; none more so than when Alexis came on for Welbeck just past the hour mark. The substitution was probably pre-planned with Welbeck playing around an hour on his first start after the injury, but it must have seemed cruel on Southampton to be 3-0 down and then see the electrifying Chilean coming on. He had an impact by claiming two assists for Theo Walcott to stroke home two simple goals to complete a hat-trick. 
Even though the finishes were relatively straightforward, it was important for Walcott to return and get on the score sheet. He needs confidence to be at his best, and we’ve seen that a nervy Theo Walcott is a waste of space, so it bodes well to have him hit the ground running when back in the team.
The game really couldn’t have gone much better for Arsene Wenger as he watched on from the stands. Plenty of players who needed game time got it, and in a game that was competitive, but played at an ideal pace to just build up some sharpness. Plus Arsenal’s woeful record at St Mary’s was blown out of the water. The coming week could be season-defining with a trip to Stamford Bridge at the end of it, but Saturday’s rout showed the squad is in good shape ahead of a big week. 


Arsenal recover from another penalty to beat snide Stoke

Even though Stoke City have signed a few more ‘flair’ players in recent times, there remains a horrible side to them as a team, and because of a section of their fans, as a club. Supporters singing ‘Aaron Ramsey, he walks with a limp’, goes beyond a bit of terrace banter and is just taking joy and mocking a player who had his leg snapped in half. And then there’s Charlie Adam. More on him later.
Despite being considered a bogey side to Arsenal, Stoke have a horrendous record at the Emirates as they haven’t picked up so much as a point in any of their games with the Gunners at the ground. But they remain a nuisance, and it was incredibly unhelpful for them to visit North London with Lee Mason selected as the referee.
Arsenal do have an unfortunate habit of conceding penalties this season, with five going against them. But the decisions seem to be becoming increasingly ridiculous. A few weeks ago, Callum Wilson got a penalty for jumping into the back of Nacho Monreal. On Saturday, Joe Allen bought himself a penalty by being shorter than Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international turned to control the ball in his own box, had Allen run into him and get a penalty for a suposed elbow from the Swiss international. Xhaka did what you’d hope your midfielder would do in that situation by shielding the ball, but Allen’s face only went up to Xhaka’s arm and Lee Mason somehow believed Xhaka had deliberately elbowed the Welshman. It strikes me that if Granit Xhaka did want to elbow someone, he wouldn’t mess about – think Dennis Bergamp on Steve Lomas in 1998. It was an absolutely ludicrous decision.
Having started the game ok, Arsenal suddenly had to chase it from 1-0 in the first half, with Charlie Adam scoring from the spot.
But this Arsenal team are increasingly showing that they don’t panic after going behind in games. Ideally they wouldn’t have to come back as often as they are doing at the moment, but when the situation arises, there’s a confidence that 1-0 down isn’t a big problem for the team. The injustice of the penalty also helped fire the team up, and for the rest of the game, they looked really up for the challenge. There was good pressure from the front and a really good intensity to Arsenal’s play.
They stepped up the pace noticeably before half-time with Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin’s developing partnership working well to control the tempo of the game. The equaliser came when Arsenal showed patience in possession before working it wide to Hector Bellerin in space. His low ball from the right was well turned in at the near-post by Theo Walcott. Bellerin had only come on after Shkodran Mustafi went off with a hamstring problem, and while Gabriel has deputised commendably, it was clear that Bellerin’s introduction gave Arsenal another dimension going forward, and it livened up Theo Walcott as well.
Bellerin was involved again as Oxlade-Chamberlain fired over the bar from the edge of the box just before the break, but it wasn’t long into the second half before Arsenal did grab the lead for the first time in the game.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain continued his good run of form by contributing another assist as he clipped an excellent pass over the top of the Stoke defence, but it still needed a lot of finishing from Mesut Ozil. The German ran onto the ball and could have tried to bring the ball down before finishing, but noticing the goalkeeper slightly too far off his line, Ozil beautifully looped his header over Grant and into the net. It was a goal that typified the change in Ozil’s game this season win his willingness to run in behind the defence and his increased confidence in front of goal.
There were a couple of concerning moments at the back when Mame Biram Diouf headed wide when unmarked and Peter Crouch brought a good save out of Petr Cech with a header, but Arsenal always carried the bigger threat going forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain was unfortunate to get taken off after another positive performance, but his replacement, Alex Iwobi, brought fresh impetus into the team, building on his goal-scoring display in Basel. But in the build-up to Iwobi’s game-clinching goal, there was a nasty moment that should draw punishment from the FA.
Apart from the penalty, Lee Mason had no control on the game as the referee as he allowed Stoke to time-waste from early in the game, and even wasted more time by talking to the goalkeeper about it and not producing a card. This ineptitude just encouraged Stoke to push the boundaries of what nastiness they could get away with. Charlie Adam then stamped over that boundary.
Alexis was on a weaving run before he was brought down by Martins Indi near the edge of the box. The ball ran to Iwobi, who controlled well and clinically swept the ball into the bottom corner. But as he jumped on the chance to power towards goal, Charlie Adam, who still had a chance to tackle Iwobi and prevent his team from conceding a goal, decided the best course of action was to deliberately stamp on Alexis Sanchez when the Chilean was on the ground after being fouled. Why are you even a professional footballer if your first thought is to intentionally injure an opposing player, rather than trying to stop a goal going in against your team? It was a disgrace, but not the first time Adam has done such a thing, having tried to strangle Alexis and stamp on Olivier Giroud previous games. If Stoke want to lose their bad reputation, a starting point is to stop employing players who want to hurt others over stopping goals. 
Overall though, it was another extremely enjoyable afternoon and rounded off an excellent week. Competition for places is bringing out good performances, especially in the attacking positions. It now means Arsenal have goal-threats across the width of the pitch, rather than relying on one or two to score. With Everton and Manchester City to come away from home this week, it’ll be another test for the Gunners to overcome, but they’re in fantastic shape to get two good results from those games. 

Alexis leads Arsenal back to winning ways

Due to the stronger squad Arsene Wenger has at his disposal this season, and the degree of experimentation that is occurring in the centre of the midfield with Santi Cazorla still out injured, the Arsenal manager has been able to make more changes to his starting line-ups this season to keep the players fresh. At times in November, this has affected some of the team’s fluidity in attack, but in the long-run, not running players into the ground should be beneficial.
There are four players in the spine of the team that are immune to rotation though, such is their importance. Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny continue to be the number one partnership at the heart of Arsenal’s defence, while Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are irreplaceable. The latter of those has had injury scares recently, but his willingness to play makes it very hard to drop him. Plus, even though Arsenal have had a decent-enough month results-wise, three draws in a row meant that a win was needed against Bournemouth on Sunday, so Alexis was never going to be one of the seven changes made from the midweek stalemate with PSG.
The Chilean returned to the centre-forward position he has occupied for the majority of the season, despite the good form of Olivier Giroud, and led from the front with his usual high-tempo pressing and all-action game. With both teams still settling into the game in the early stages, it was Alexis who made the difference as he closed down Bournemouth’s centre-back Steve Cook, who in-turn played a short back-pass towards his goalkeeper when under pressure. Alexis pounced on the opportunity and calmly rolled the ball past Adam Federici. Arsenal had been much more static in their closing down of the defence in the draws against Tottenham and Manchester United, so it was great to see that element of the defensive game return and it immediately brought a reward.
One player who did get brought into the starting XI as one of Arsene Wenger’s changes, somewhat surprisingly, was Mathieu Debuchy. The French full-back hadn’t started a Premier League game in over a year because of the form of Hector Bellerin, injuries and a loan spell at Bordeaux. With Carl Jenkinson given a breather after back-to-back games as he still gets back to full fitness from a long injury lay-off, Debuchy was given a chance. He started the game tidily enough, but broke down after 15 minutes and his game and, depending on the severity of the injury, his Arsenal career came to an end.
Debuchy has been desperately unlucky with injuries since he joined the club, and that in his absence, a young Spaniard quickly turned himself into the best right-back in the Premier League. A move or another loan spell was surely on the cards anyway in January, so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t leave on recovering from the latest setback. Even though Jenkinson was being rested, it was still a surprise that he wasn’t at least on the bench, with Arsene Wenger knowing that playing Debuchy was a risk, with just one under-23 appearance this season. It meant that Gabriel had to play as an emergency full-back, and while he took a bit of time to adapt to the role, and obviously didn’t offer much going forward, he deserves a lot of credit for how he performed in the unfamiliar position.
Before half-time, Arsenal got slightly nervy and allowed Bournemouth some possession, but the Gunners weren’t at fault for the equaliser that came before the break. After Arsenal cleared a corner, there was a debatable challenge on Mesut Ozil, but referee Mike Jones waved play on. Moments later when the ball came back into the box, Callum Wilson jumped into Nacho Monreal and then flung himself to the ground, but the referee instantly gave a spot kick. It was a ludicrous decision as neither player had control of the ball and it was just a 50-50 tussle for possession. Monreal did nothing to merit conceding a penalty. It was truly baffling. Wilson scored from the spot and Arsenal needed to regain composure having changed the right-back and conceded a joke of a penalty. 
Even though Alexis fired a thunderous effort off the bar from a tight angle just before half-time, the hosts didn’t really regain control and fluidity in the game until the second-half. Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny became increasingly influential and Mesut Ozil got on the ball in more dangerous positions. It was the fleet-footed shimmying of the German that helped unlock the defence for Arsenal to take the lead again just past the hour-mark.
Ozil confused Brad Smith and clipped a cross to the back post to pick out Nacho Monreal. I still can’t quite decide if Monreal entirely meant to then centre the ball in the way that he did, but the Spaniard produced a perfectly weighted loft into the six-yard box and Theo Walcott couldn’t miss with the downward header. It completed a great week for him personally following the birth of his second child, but I have got a bone to pick with Theo at the moment. Stop going against the club’s sleeve length tradition. It looks wrong. Shkodran Mustafi rolls his long sleeves up, you can do the same.
Bournemouth carried a threat for the rest of the game, and Arsenal needed Petr Cech to deny a Benik Afobe header, but the Gunners defended pretty well for most of the second half, aided by Xhaka and Elneny in front of them. The centre of Arsenal’s midfield remains a conundrum without Santi Cazorla, but Xhaka seems to now be up with the pace of the Premier League, so hopefully will get a run in the team. But with Ramsey and Coquelin eager to start, what Arsene Wenger does his midfield is anyone’s guess at the moment.
What he does up front is less of a surprise, as Olivier Giroud is regularly getting effective 20-minute cameos off the bench, moving Alexis wide for the last part of the game. The move paid off again as, even though the Frenchman didn’t score, he bagged a nice assist with a cut-back for Alexis to slot in the third goal. 
After the draws, it was a very welcome win, and if Arsenal progress in the EFL Cup on Wednesday, they’ll complete an unbeaten November in all competitions. Alexis Sanchez and the other key men in the spine of the team are very unlikely to appear against Southampton, but even if their replacements perform brilliantly, no-one will oust the Chilean from the team. As emphasised by the win on Sunday, he’s just too important.