Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Arsenal into EFL Quarters (2-0 over Reading)

While Arsenal probably should have scored more in their 2-0 victory over Reading in the League Cup, it was a seventh clean sheet in their past eight games in all competitions. It was also another fine showing for the Ox, who scored both goals in the win.  
Some thoughts on the weekend …

1.  Ox Rising: Oxlade-Chamberlain has found it difficult to break into the starting 11 this term, largely because Walcott is playing some of the best football of his career on the right and Cazorla is generally preferred in the middle. Now that Cazorla is out injured for a spell, one does wonder if Wenger might consider giving Ox a run in the team, particularly if Coquelin or Xhaka are fit and starting further back to provide cover for the back four. Ramsey is still out with a bizarrely lingering hamstring issue, Wilshere is plying his trade for Bournemouth and the defensive setup used last weekend seemed to undermine the attacking thrust of the side.

Walcott is a must starter at the moment on the right and Sanchez has proven himself capable of making the move to the number 9, but two options for Ox are in central midfield or, possibly, on the left cutting in. That role has been played by Sanchez in the past and Iwobi more recently, but if Ox can keep up his scoring pace he might be an option to share time with the youngster. When Cazorla returns, it is hard to see where Ox can play week in and out unless he moves to the left wing, though opportunities will surely present themselves. One is him playing in the number 10 when Ozil is rested, on the right when Walcott gets needed breaks (or plays through the middle) or deeper in midfield for Cazorla.

His return of five goals so far this term is certainly an improvement on the past and moves him closer to the complete player many believed he could become. He is probably the second best dribbler on the team, behind Sanchez, and certainly the strongest option in the front line, though his range of pass and forward movement could make him a formidable central midfielder in the coming years. Whether that will be with Arsenal is still an open question without a clear answer. The competition for places, which will only grow when Ramsey and Welbeck return, can only be a positive for the side, as we have already seen marked improvement in Walcott and Ox as they realize nothing is guaranteed with this side.

2. Youngbloods Impress: Wenger decided to go radically toward non-starters in this game and it paid dividends not only in the result but building confidence for a series of youngsters and backups to the starting 11. Holding and Paulista were strong through the middle, important as Mertesacker’s time is probably nearing its end at the Emirates and an injury to Koscielny or Mustafi seems likely before the season is done. Jenkinson acquitted himself well in his return to the side, after a long injury layoff after a spell with West Ham, displaying the potential to be a decent backup for Bellerin. Gibbs was solid as a potential medium term replacement for Monreal and Martinez had a couple of high quality saves, though his route to the starting line-up seems rather distant. Teenagers Zelalem and Maitland-Niles both looked solid if nervy and Perez continued to show his potential, making a case for the playing time he hoped to have secured with his summer move (even as a berth in the starting 11 on a weekly basis seems unlikely).

Giroud, on the other hand, must be wondering if this might be his final season with the club, a decent scoring record varnished by the sense he never quite crossed the threshold to top scorer, potentially costing the team the crown last season with his long second-half scoring drought. His lack of dynamism just doesn’t seem to suit the side any longer and, while his aerial threat might have been useful against a compact Middlesbrough last weekend, substitute appearances and the odd start seem to be his future, barring injuries to others, for the remainder of the campaign.

One other disappointment was the absence of Krystian Bielek from the side, as he looked a promising prospect a couple of seasons ago, though one wonders if he will ever break into the side now. Among those playing, one does expect to see more of Perez as the season unfolds, much more of Ox if he keeps up this level, Elneny as a more defensive option in midfield to hold leads or in particular games (unlucky to be replaced by his former teammate Xhaka, who does seem a step up, after a decent first few months with the team) and the continued presence of Iwobi as a dynamic forward, though one would like to see him show more poise when scoring opportunities present themselves.

3.  Arsenal Finally back through to Final 8: Wenger has generally seen the League Cup, in its many manifestations, as an opportunity to give young players and non-starters the opportunity for game time. Not surprisingly, that result has led some toward the starting 11, but has also meant the Gunners have never won the competition under the Frenchman. A lost final to Birmingham in 2011, during their longest barren spell under Wenger, was a moment not soon forgotten by Gooners, but they are certainly in a position now to make a march toward a final, after going out early for five years now. The competition will probably be stiff, but a trophy in February could be just what the Gunners need to build confidence for the second half run-in where they have faltered so often since 2004. Arsenal will hope to avoid a hot Liverpool or either Manchester side in the next round, but should now bring more starters into the fold for an opportunity to win some early silverware, hopefully on the way to bigger things … 

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