Can backup options change Arsenal’s season?
Hallelujah! After what must have been at least 100 years (I’ve lost count), Arsenal have finally stopped the Premier League rot and claimed a point during their midweek clash with Southampton.
While the spoils of war will have a limited impact on the championship standings, it was still a step in the right direction as the drought target drew to a close. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has found the bottom of the net for the first time since the beginning of November and our losing streak in the Emirates has been banned… once and for all?
While it was frustrating to see that we once again failed to finish a match with 11 men, Mikel Arteta will likely be heartened by the way his team has recovered despite their numerical disadvantage. Additionally, the boss made a number of selection decisions – some applied – that might offer something to think about during the Christmas season.
Two of the most endearing decisions made for the game were the roles assigned 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 match ban and claimed a regular starting spot.
The England international is much more suited to the role of reversed full-back than the Spaniard and both his composure in possession and athleticism have had a major impact on our attacking game, 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 more difficult to impose himself on the proceedings, but the strength of his upper body and the rushing pace posed a considerable threat to the Saints’ bottom line. His involvement on goal was magnificent, demonstrating an urgency on the ball that we haven’t seen enough of lately.
Another forced change was made in the center of the park when Dani Ceballos replaced the hotheaded granit Xhaka and the Real Madrid lender gave his best performance since returning to the club in the summer (not that there was much competition) . We saw a moment or two in the first half where he conceded sloppy possession, but as time went on Ceballos’ confidence grew and much of our best play went through him.
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While Arteta’s hands were tied for many of these changes, there was a surprise in store when Nicolas Pepe was given the nod to Willian on the right wing. Considering the Spaniard’s seemingly eternal love for the Brazilian, the decision was quite unexpected but likely sparked applause from Arsenal fans far and wide.
As for Pepe himself, signing the record may not have had the desired impact forward, with his inability to beat defenders one-on-one particularly infuriating. However, his off-ball movement was excellent, he dragged opponents out of position to great effect and only for a little more quality in the last third would he get his name on the scoresheet.
Overall, those enlisted on the squad on Wednesday night have made a positive contribution to the squad, and even if Bellerin is back in contention over the weekend and Willian is always ready on the sidelines, I’d be a little baffled if Arteta rushed in. to restore them in the side.
The knowledgeable figures in the locker room have had ample opportunities to cement their seats and have continually disappointed, while those who have struggled to settle in the manager’s plans this season have risen when it mattered this week.
Arsenal simply need to start collecting three points sooner rather than later and perhaps it’s time to look at alternatives to do so.