There’s no besmirching a 5-1 win, that’s for sure and when you do it having rotated most of your team in the League Cup during a busy festive schedule, waking up the next morning feels all the more jubilant I reckon.
We’ve seen plenty of instances in the past where rotated teams for Premier League clubs have looked disjointed, out of sorts and ended up on the wrong end of a bad result. So whilst I 100% agree that the side needed to be rotated yesterday, I also understood that we could still end up with egg on our faces if we didn’t do the necessary at home on a could evening in December.
Mikel rang the changes for sure, but he didn’t go completely different in terms of personnel, with starts for Odegaard and White the surprise inclusions. I guess the thinking is that we don’t play our next game until Boxing Day which is five days away and so recovery time should be ok for those players, but the team itself was not exactly an experiment in youth and unknown names. Leno in goal, Cedric at right back, White and Holding in central defence with Tavares at left back. A midfield of Elneny and Odegaard in the middle with ESR, Balogun and Pepe behind Nketiah up top made for a decent enough side and it was important for some of those rotational players to get minutes ahead of this busy period. And we started well enough; we controlled the football and the possession created opportunities that Sunderland found difficult to live with. You could tell that despite the change in players in red and white, the confidence flowing through the squad is there right now.
But after what felt like a comfortable enough initial 25 minutes in which Nketiah scored and then Pepe with a good overlapping run by Cedric (who did that all night to good effect and really helped Pepe get space to play well I thought), Sunderland showed why they are a confident side and have been playing some good football themselves in League One. They move the ball well and although we gave them a battering it did look like a Premier League side had rocked up at the Emirates at times I thought. They build up play from the back well and their goal to bring themselves back in to the game in the first half was one in which we were sliced option right through the middle. I suspect there will be some questions that need to be asked as to why White lost his man and why the passer who assisted for the goal was able to slot a through ball in as easily as he did without much pressure, but when you’ve won 5-1 it just becomes a minor footnote on the evening.
At 2-1 though Sunderland had a few moments and forced Leno in to a few saves though and the game could have threatened to go a little sour from our perspective. In some respect perhaps the halftime whistle was welcome then, because when we came out in the second half we looked a different animal. A clinical animal. An animal determined to demonstrate the gulf in class between the two teams.
And we certainly did.
Goal number three from Nketiah was a perfect predatory strikers finish and the ball from Tavares was good, but Nketiah’s movement to get in front of the defender was excellent. He loves this competition and whilst I still believe we should have cashed in on him earlier in his career, that he won’t make it as Arsenal’s number one striker, he still showed why he has talent and his movement should be applauded for that goal.
It should also be applauded for the third goal of his on the night, which was a sumptuous Alexis/Henry – style backheel in to the net after wonderful work from Pepe. It’s his first hattrick of his career and you have to be happy for him, despite the contract situation. It’s one of those that we’d probably be looking at between£20 – £30million if we’d have another year or two on his deal, because he’s shown he can finish, but we are where we are and there is no point raking up the old ground. We’ve trodden on it well enough.
A word for Pepe too as well, who has been the forgotten man in the last six weeks, but who came on and did exactly what you would want him to do. He played well in large patches last night and caused problems for both Sunderland’s left backs throughout. As I mentioned before the fact he had Cedric overlapping him all night also helped because it stretched that left hand side for Sunderland and gave him the room to beat his man. But he also managed a fair few times in which he skilfully beat his man – including for Nketiah’s third goal – and if we saw more of that in the Premier League then we’d probably see more of Pepe too. In a way it is a shame he is going to the AFCON because I suspect a few more performances like that and Arteta would be tempted to give him more game time. But with him off to Africa in about a week-and-a-bits time, it feeels like his chances might be limited to feature before then.
You never know though. The close proximity between the Norwich and Wolves games mean that rotation surely has to be a consideration and that might afford Pepe one start between now and February when he returns from the AFCON. The positive side of the AFCON is that he will be playing for the Ivory Coast and that means we get a match fit player whose touch hasn’t been let down through a lack of game time. But he could probably do with some minutes before he leaves to show Arteta that he is still worth considering for regular game time when he does return.
A final word for Charlie Patino, who got on yesterday and scored on his Arsenal debut. We’ve all heard a lot about him, he’s a guy who the club has high hopes for, but what a special night for the lad to get on the scoresheet in his first competitive bit of action. Well done lad.
So all-in-all a good night and well worth the watch that we got. Some good goals scored, safe passage to the semi final assured, which will give us another shot at some silverware over two legs, albeit over a hectic January period.
Catch you wonderful people tomorrow for some more of the usual ramblings.