Sunday, January 29, 2017

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.