Can the backup options turn Arsenal’s season around?
Hallelujah! Following what must have been at least 100 years (I’ve lost count), Arsenal finally stopped the Premier League rot and claimed a point during their midweek clash with Southampton.
While the spoils of war will have little impact on the league standings, it was nevertheless a step in the right direction as the goal drought came to an end. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang found the back of the net for the first time since the early November, and our losing streak at the Emirates was banished….once and for all?
Although it was frustrating to see us once again fail to finish a match with 11 men, Mikel Arteta will likely be heartened by the way in which his team rallied despite their numerical disadvantage. Furthermore, there were a number of selection decisions the boss made – some enforced – that may offer something to think about over the Christmas period.
Two of the more eye-catching decisions made for the game were the roles handed to Bukayo Saka and Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Finally getting his Premier League opportunity after impressive outings in Europe, Maitland-Niles was the beneficiary of Hector Bellerin’s one-match suspension and made a decent claim for a regular starting spot.
The England international is much more suited to the inverted full-back position than the Spaniard and both his composure in possession and athleticism had a noticeable impact on our offensive play, with Nicolas Pepe finding himself much more involved than usual thanks to the support from behind.
On the opposite flank, Saka found it a little tougher to impose himself on proceedings, but his upper body strength and burst of pace posed a considerable threat to the Saints’ backline. His involvement in the goal was magnificent, demonstrating an urgency on the ball that we have not seen enough of lately.
Another enforced change was made in the centre of the park as Dani Ceballos replaced the hot-headed Granit Xhaka, and the Real Madrid loanee put in his best performance since re-joining the club in the summer (not that there was much competition). We did see one or two moments in the first-half where he sloppily conceded possession, but as the game wore on Ceballos’ confidence grew and much of our best play went through him.
While Arteta’s hands were tied for many of these changes, there was one surprise in store as Nicolas Pepe was given the nod over Willian on the right wing. Considering the Spaniard’s seemingly undying love for the Brazilian, the decision was quite unexpected but likely elicited cheers from Arsenal fans far and wide.
As for Pepe himself, the record signing may not have had the desired impact up front, with his inability to beat defenders one-on-one particularly infuriating. However, his movement off the ball was excellent, he dragged opponents out of position to great effect and only for a bit more quality in the final third he would have got his name on the scoresheet.
Overall, those drafted into the side on Wednesday night made positive contributions to the team and, even though Bellerin will be back in contention at the weekend and Willian is ever-ready on the side-lines, I would be a little perplexed if Arteta rushed to reinstate them into the side.
The experienced figures in the dressing room have been afforded ample opportunities to cement their places and have continually disappointed, while those who have struggled to establish themselves in the manager’s plans this season stepped up when it mattered this week.
Arsenal simply must start picking up three points sooner rather than later and perhaps it is time to look at the alternatives to do it.