So, we started out cup defence campaign successfully on Saturday, having dispatched Sunderland 3-1. It was, I think, a thoroughly enjoyable viewing for the neutrals and even Arsenal fans might have relaxed a little bit in the latter stages, after the Gunners went 2 up.
Let’s shoot straight to the points of interest then.
It’s fair to say yours truly had a particularly bad day at guessing the squad. None of Ospina, Mertesacker and Flamini made their entrances (although Ospina was kept out by a late groin problem, otherwise he was all set to start). Instead, we saw Gabriel pair Koscielny (our captain for the occasion), Giroud keep his place in what looked like a 4-4-2 together with Walcott, while in midfield we witnessed a surprise duo of Iwobi and Chambers flanked by Ox and Campbell. Gibbs and Hector started at full-back positions.
If the selection was surprising, the fact it worked quite well was even more so. I don’t think we’ll see Iwobi alongside Chambers anytime soon, for instance, yet it’s not because neither did well. Calum had another solid outing in the holding position, looking very tidy on the ball and calm without it (unfortunately I can’t give you the numbers, neither Whoscored nor StatsZone app collect data for the FA Cup), while Iwobi was probably the surprise package of the night, finding pockets of space and not holding onto the ball for too long.
We also witnessed improved performances from Gibbs and Oxlade. The Ox was hit-and-miss in the first half, before collecting himself in the second, which saw his shot rebound off the post and his wonderful long ball find Bellerin so that the Spaniard could feed Giroud. Gibbs, meanwhile provided a good outlet on the left, willing to attack the space in front of him and basically working that left wing alone, cause neither Theo nor Oxlade looked even remotely interested in staying wide.
All in all, a very good showing from our fringe players (Arteta and Jeff made solid cameos too). Good to know we have quality back-up. That of all freshly introduced faces Gabriel looked the most underwhelming (didn’t make any major mistake however, as far as I can recall) tells you a lot about our second-string players.
The goals scored
They were all so delicious I’ll link you to all three.
For the first Koscielny threaded a fine pass to Iwobi, who, in his turn, made an even better pass to Walcott. Theo skinned Yedlin and then cut the ball back for the onrushing Campbell. The Costa-Rican made the finish look easy, when in fact it wasn’t, as replays demonstrated. 1-1.
Our second of the night was scored by a substitute Aaron Ramsey. Campbell played a clever 1-2 with Bellerin on the edge of the box, Hector won the foot race against Danny Graham and his subsequent low cross found Ramsey, whose left-footed finish made it 2-1.
Now, let me take this moment to congratulate Ramsey. It was his 4th goal of the season, but his first quality passage of play in this regard. His previous three came against Watford, Sunderland (both very scrappy) and Aston Villa (a simple tap-in), but Saturday’s goal will, I hope, sparkle Aaron’s true return to former heights.
The goal showcased everything good about Rambo in the middle: the quality of his runs, his energetic approach to his duties and, of course, his ability to put the ball into the back of the net effortlessly, without overcooking things. Aaron had a very good December too, scoring twice and assisting a couple more, let’s hope he builds on it.
Finally, our third goal was my favourite of the night. It started with Oxlade getting the ball in midfield, spotting Bellerin making a run and weighing the perfect pass into Hector’s pass. Our right-back sprinted past Van Anholt and then played the ball to Giroud. The quality of the pass and Giroud’s positioning were such that the Frenchman had the easiest of tasks of tapping it in. 3-1.
On top of these goals, we had quite a few other chances to score. That’s why I enjoyed our performance so much: it was a scintillating attacking display, the concept of which Van Gaal cannot grasp.
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The Spaniard mostly looked off-colour since coming back from injury at the end of November (City game exempting), but was one of our stand-out performers vs the Black Cats.
He recorded two assists, made some timely tackles and made such an overwhelmingly positive impression on Arsenal fans they voted him MoM later. I think Hector’s improved performance may also be a sign of blossoming understanding with Joel Campbell. He knows the Costa-Rican will help him out defensively, but on Saturday we’ve also been treated to how daunting their partnership may be further up field. This understanding of each other’s weaknesses and strengths, which stems from playing together for a period of time, is quite beneficial to both the players and the team as a whole.
Now here’s my personal MoM. I don’t begrudge Hector the award, his performance was stellar, but to me Campbell’s industrious display defined the outcome. His first-time finish from a Theo cutback evened things out, while he claims himself a pre-assist for that one-two with Bellerin.
Joel also put in a shift (as always) in defense and in pressing and closing down the opponents. He popped up everywhere on the field, reminding me both of Ramsey and Alexis in this regard and I don’t think there can be a higher praise for our winger.
Furthermore, Joel reminds me of Ramsey in more ways than one. It’s not only his work rate, his overall contribution and playing qualities also make me think of Aaron. Thing is, neither are exceptional at anything, which they compensate by being good at everything. Campbell does what only Ramsey is capable of in this side: he brings balance. That’s why the idea of Campbell in the middle, at which I first scoffed, doesn’t seem as absurd to me now. After all, look at how many positions Ramsey can cover if needs must. Only in my memory he played on the wings (both wings!) at central midfield and at 10, and even at right-back and centre-back. Was he bad in any of these positions? No. This is what we might have on our hands with Campbell. Fortunately, he sees himself as a winger or striker and has no claims to play centrally, I say “fortunately” because our midfield is already pretty congested, while our wings could use another body as it is.
After the game, Wenger was also full of compliments for the Costa-Rican:
“He is kind of in Coquelin’s position last year. Nobody expected him [to do well] and now he is taking his place in the team and he is ready to fight for the position and he is efficient.
I agree [that he is playing with confidence]. That comes out of his game. Compare one month ago to today, he believes he belongs there and has a right to play.”
Think a comparison of this kind is quite telling, especially coming from the manager. I also think Campbell deserves his place in the starting line-up and I wouldn’t omit him when Sanchez returns. Which means a drop for either Theo or Giroud. At this point in time I’m more comfortable with dropping either than Campbell.
It was a nice game and a great result for us. Barring a couple of bad individual decisions, we looked comfortable despite changing things around quite a bit. We also showed a mental aspect to our game by coming from behind to win it, so there’s also that. Nice to know we can pull off these comebacks from time to time, for it looked like our last happened quite a while back.
The win puts us through to the 4th round, the draw for which will be held on Monday. Till January 30th we can forget all about it, though, and turn our eye to Liverpool, Stoke and Chelsea. Quite a package, eh?
I’ll be back with you to preview our trip to Anfield (hilariously, the Scousers nearly lost to 4th-division Exeter and now face a replay) in a couple of days.
Till then bask in the glow of our win