Last week’s strolls against Reading and Sunderland highlighted why Arsenal are a more serious proposition this year.
Make no mistake. Barring an even bigger miracle turnaround than ever seen before, Sunderland will be relegated this season. Defensively they are awful, beyond Defoe are toothless in attack, and in the absence of Cattermole and one or two others, they are awfully lacking in fight.
Likewise Reading would probably not stick around for long in the Premier League with their current squad, despite good energy and rather more evident intestinal fortitude.
Accordingly, both wins were expected and comfortable in the end, but nevertheless pointed to good signs going forwards.
Reading saw an almost complete change of personnel from the disappointment of dropping points at home against Middlesbrough. Injuries and suspensions on midfield meant that Elneny was exempt from our rotation policy, but his light work-load to date means that this was no concern.
While the League Cup is for Arsenal primarily a vehicle for blooding younger players, it was abundantly clear in midweek who were the established first team squad members and who weren’t. Despite two goals and providing a constant threat, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance was eclipsed by Alex Iwobi, who was the best player on the pitch by a distance, despite missing a glorious opportunity in the second half. Elneny, Holding and Gibbs were also clearly a level above everyone else, with the latter rewarded with a start (and an assist) at the weekend.
Despite less convincing performances, the tie against Reading also provided an opportunity for both Gabriel and Jenkinson to get much needed minutes after their respective injuries, with the likelihood being that both will be needed before the season ends.
Elsewhere at the back, Emi Martinez showed that he is perfectly capable as our third choice goalkeeper. In midfield, The Jeff again showed that for all his skill and physical potential, his speed and quality of decision making need to improve, as does his ability to get involved in play. Iwobi is a perfect role model for him as our young Frenchman has even more potential, but at present contributes far less, and could, in time, be competing for the same role.
Centrally, Ainsley Maitland-Niles’s performance piqued the interest despite an obvious rawness in possession and a need to get stronger. His ability to read the play and anticipate positionally, combined with his effective pressing was impressive for such an inexperienced player, and he was rewarded with a place on the bench (and a brief cameo late on) against Sunderland.
It is unlikely either will see significant game time in the league unless there is an injury crisis, but it is comforting to know that some of the next wave coming through might be able to contribute if needed.
Up front, Lucas was lively, perhaps with work-rate being more noticeable than quality. His injury, from a needless and unnecessarily forceful foul by a Reading substitute who probably should have been booked before then, was the one black spot on Arsenal’s week. With Welbeck still out until late January at best, and Chuba Akpom likewise sidelined with his back injury, this leaves the club a little light up front, and adds even greater value to Giroud being back fit once more.
And how! For anyone to come from the bench with a match tied and score twice with their first two touches is the stuff of dreams, for both player and management.
Giroud has always been good at overcoming set-backs and equally has a very good record of impacting games from the bench. While the current system is largely reliant on the mobility and technical ability of Alexis, for whom Giroud is not the most logical like for like replacement, he is an incredibly effective alternative if and when we need a change in style or focus.
As a penalty area presence he presents such a fundamentally different challenge to our Chilean dervish, that it is incredibly difficult for a tiring defence to adjust quickly enough to prevent an impact being made. This is particularly the case in games we dominate, in which he has a pretty impressive record even when being run into the ground over a period of time due to a lack of alternatives.
Crucially, this expectation has been proven in the limited sample size so far, which is impressive given it has been a season interrupted by injury to date. In the fixtures he has been able to participate in, his arrival from the bench has had a quantifiable positive impact in terms of team goals scored or chances created, which suggests that the current policy up front subject to rotation, is the right one to be pursuing at this time. Equally importantly, he appears to be accepting of his current role, for the time being at least.
Elsewhere, despite the combination of Xhaka’s suspension and Cazorla and Ramsey’s injuries perhaps costing the team points against an impressive Middlesbrough, our midfield options remain strong, particularly with Xhaka and Ramsey returning from their respective absences.
When considering that we have Ospina, Jenkinson (or Debuchy if anyone knows his whereabouts), Monreal or Gibbs, Gabriel, Holding (and in a couple of months Mertesacker) waiting in the wings in defence, there is a clear picture of a squad with great depth, despite the fact that we have players of the calibre of Wilshere, Chambers and Campbell on loan.
At present the only clear weakness (beyond an unavoidable drop off in quality in certain positions) is a temporary shortage of options up front and out wide over the next two months. Should we scrape through to mid-January without further casualties, we will suddenly have an embarrassment of riches in that department, with three strikers who can also play on the flanks returning.
Of course, the current strength of the squad is no guarantee of success, but for the first time in over a decade it seems at least as though the manager is not attempting to operate with one hand tied behind his back.
Given the strength in depth of the division and the number of teams clustering at the top, the decision to have a summer of investment in the squad as a whole seems a well-timed one. These things can all turn on the roll of a die, but the variety of options at the manager’s disposal make this season more worthy of a genuine emotional investment than has been the case in a while.