Friday, September 27, 2013

WBA 1 Arsenal 1 (3-4 pens) (3rd Round of Capital One Cup)

The League Cup has been providing a stage for Arsenal's budding stars to make their debuts in the first team. For the last couple of years, however, thanks to the depth in the squad, this competition also has given fringe first-teamers valuable playing time. The opening game of Arsenal's Capital One Cup campaign this season, which took place on Wednesday night, saw a mixture of experience and youth in their team. This was due to mixed reasons: a few players, namely Vermaelen, Arteta, and Bendtner, needed game time to regain their match fitness, while Wenger was forced to rest some of key players, such as Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere, and Aaron Ramsey, who have been playing twice a week since mid-August, including the international break. The lengthy injury list did not allow Wenger the luxury of the complete rotation of first-teamers. He had to resort to fielding youngsters to fill the gap the regular starters left. These changes to the starting line-up were all expected prior to the match, but our major concern was whether the team would have enough quality to beat West Brom, who had also one eye on the forthcoming clash with Manchester United at  Old Trafford this weekend.

Arsene Wenger made nine changes from the side who started the 3-1 defeat of Stoke on Sunday. Only Per Mertesacker and Serge Gnabry, who started in the place of Theo Walcott after the Englishman was pulled off during the warm-up, kept their places in the starting XI. Alongside Mertesacker, Vermaelen started in the central defence. The two full-backs, Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal deputised Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, respectively. In front of the experienced back-four, Flamini was supposed to play a holding midfielder role, but following a minor shoulder complaint, Wenger had made a decision as a precaution to leave Flamini on the bench. Isaac Haydon was given a starting place instead. Given the background that the youth academy player is trained as a defender, the replacement made sense. On the other hand, Frimpong's omission is a mystery to us. If he is not injured, he must have completely fallen out of Wenger's favour.

The problem was up front. 20-year-old Thomas Eisfeld started in the attacking central midfield role, with Gnabry and Ryo Miyaichi on the left and right wings. Bendtner was a lone striker. There was just not enough creativity in Arsenal's midfield, which usually dominate their game. In fact, the most of the game was uneventful, lacking quality. Arsenal lost their possession too cheaply, with a number of passes misplaced. Eisfeld, Gnabry and Miyaichi kept swapping their positions, but whoever played in the middle, they went missing. It was Arsenal's worst game we have seen for a long time. Although Mesut Ozil has seemingly fitted into our midfield instantly, our style of play requires understanding and cohesion in midfield. We, supporters, were bracing ourselves for a long enduring night and indeed, it took 120 minutes plus injury time and penalty shoot-out to decide the winners.

The youth players looked out of their depth most of the times, but it was not fair for them to be played like the way they were played this night. They should have been eased into the first-team action one by one. Gnabry's contrasting performances highlight that. The German youth international looked comfortable on the ball and showed some promise as the game wore on against Stoke, when he was introduced into the mix of quality players, including Ozil. On the other hand, he had a disappointing night among the inexperienced midfield with his talent shown only in patches. These young players need to have quality players around them to shine in this kind of competitive games.

The biggest positive from this game is obviously the result. We are through to the fourth round of the Capital One Cup. It may be a Mickey Mouse cup and our lowest priority, but it would be sad to go out so early in the competition, which is still a trophy to be won. We have survived an early exit scare only to be drawn against Chelsea in the next round. Asked if he would play youngsters again in the next round, Wenger answered that he was yet to decide. Surely he must have had second thoughts during the match about fielding too many young players. The Frenchman stated his decision would be down to the injury situation at the time. By the clash with Chelsea on 29/30 October, we are expected to have Rosicky back (possibly as early as next week against Napoli), while Walcott and Cazorla are both penciled in for the returns after the international break. If we are lucky, we might even have Poldi back by then. These expected returns should boost options for the team selection.

As expected, Wenger heaped praise for the young players for their gritty performance, but if the result went the wrong way (and it could have easily gone wrong as "the penalties are a bit of a lottery", according to Wenger), how would he have defended his team selection? Thanks to the happy ending, there weren't many questions cast over the quality of the game, but hopefully we, supporters, will not have to endure this kind of games again.

Player Rating

Fabianski: 7
Made a few good saves.

Jenkinson: 7
After struggling to cope with Sessegnon's trickery early in the game, he grew into the game to keep the ex-Sunderland man quiet. Went forward often to help out the attack and delivered good crosses. He demonstrated his amazing athleticism, which attracted Wenger's attention when he was a Charlton player, by running up and down the right flank until the 120th minute.

Mertesacker: 7
Made a couple of match-saving tackles.

Vermaelen: 7
Didn't put foot wrong. The yellow card was a bit harsh. If he continues without making mistakes for a few games, hopefully his confidence will recover.

Monreal: 7
Solid. Had a good chance to score, but his shot was blocked. Stepped up to take the decisive penalty and sealed the win.

Haydon: 5
Had a poor game. He was lucky to stay on the pitch after his sliding tackle at Mulumbu, which was shown only a yellow card. Replaced by Olsson in the 84th minute.

Arteta: 6
His first start of the season following Sunday's cameo appearance against Stoke City. Looked rusty with his tackles often late. Hobbled off the pitch in the 95th minute, but Wenger assured that the Spaniard only had a cramp.

Eisfeld: 6
Opened the scoring in the 62nd minute. Mostly anonymous by then, but popped up to get behind the West Brom defence line, when Bendtner laid the ball for him. Clinical finish, which is what we can always rely on him for. Wenger pointed out that he and Robert Pires share a rare quality in appearing in the box suddenly and quietly. Hopefully, the 20-year-old German will grow into the Arsenal legend's mould. Taken off the pitch in the 82nd minute to give way to Chuba Akpom.

Gnabry: 5
Some good pieces of work in patches, but overall poor performance from the highly-rated youngster. However, his through ball which released Bendtner from his marker was a pure quality.

Miyaichi: 5
Put in a few good crosses, but most of the times he didn't know what to do in the final third.

Bendtner: 5
He had a glorious chance to score a winner, but squandered it by taking too long and one touch too many. Looked rusty and far from full match fitness. Good to see him step up to take our first penalty and score, though.


Akpom: 6
The 82nd-minute substitute for the goalscorer, Eisfeld. The youngest player on the pitch at the age of 17 was one of the star players in the pre-season. His penalty was the most important one for us at 3-1 after Gnabry's pen was saved. Kept his nerve and took a very good penalty.

Olsson: 6
Replaced Haydon in the 84th minute. Brought a fresh pair of legs to the team. Good prospect as a box-to-box player, if he toughens up. Cool penalty.

Bellerin: 5
Right-back for the U-19 team was used in midfield. Took two wild shots at goal. With his attacking instinct and slightly dodgy defensive record, the midfield could be his future.

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