While many supporters can be excused for looking ahead to the massive showdown with Liverpool on Saturday at the Emirates Stadium, Unai Emery put his lauded “one match at a time” approach to the test against Blackpool in Wednesday’s Carabao Cup 4th Round. He deployed a heavily-rotated Arsenal side in an attempt to keep key players fresh for the weekend, and the prevailing atmosphere was one of far less intensity than has been the recent norm during the Gunners’ now 13-game unbeaten streak. Arsenal were far from their best on the night, allowing a much less talented Blackpool side to stay within striking distance, but ultimately survived the test battle, walking out as 2-1 victors and on a collision course with hated rivals Tottenham in the next round.
The Future On Display
The Carabao Cup may now be a popular target of ridicule among fans of the top six English clubs, whose season goals are far more likely to include European and Premier League honours than success in the least prestigious domestic competition, but it still offers a unique opportunity to players and fans alike. Given the inherent schedule congestion that comes from competing simultaneously on four fronts, Premier League clubs often use the League Cup as a way to blood youngsters into the first team with valuable match experience.
Earlier in the campaign, as Unai Emery focused on identifying the players that best fit his philosophy and on finding his first choice XI, the team was rotated minimally for midweek fixtures. However, coming off a week in which the Gunners turned out three times in seven days, Emery finally injected some youth into his lineup against Blackpool. Emile Smith-Rowe, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Matteo Guendouzi, and Julio Pleguezuelo were all handed starts on Wednesday night, and they rewarded their manager by contributing to the narrow victory.
Maitland-Niles made his first appearance since opening night when a fractured leg stunted the momentum of his growing influence in the team. And, for once, he got to start in a more advanced midfield role ahead of a pivot of Aaron Ramsey and Matteo Guendouzi. Emile Smith-Rowe probably had the best night of the bunch, showing his diverse skill set playing predominantly on the left in a fluid attacking midfield trio. His match-deciding goal was his second for the senior side but his first at the Emirates Stadium, and it gave the Gunners some much-needed breathing room before two sending offs and a renewed urgency from the Blackpool players saw the result slip into doubt.
At 21, Julio Pleguezuelo has been waiting for his opportunity to leave a mark on the first team for quite a while. But his play opened some eyes on Wednesday night. The young defender, who has experience at fullback and in defensive midfield, showed off his smooth passing and polished demeanour on the ball while anchoring the defence with veteran Shkodran Mustafi at his side. Standing a shade under six-feet-tall and with a slight frame, Pleguezuelo gives up some size and strength to many Premier League attackers, but he makes up for it with his fluid movement and high football intelligence. Out of contract at the end of the year, Pleguezuelo has had anything but a certain future at the club, but given more opportunities to shine as the season progresses, the young Spaniard could look to force his way into Unai Emery’s future plans.
The Lone Survivor?
“Living the dream”. Once part of Arsene Wenger’s grand plans as one of his coveted young British core, this is now the phrase fans use more than any other when describing Carl Jenkinson’s place at the club. The defender grew up a supporter, and despite clearly being, at best, on the periphery of the playing squad, he has clung to his place in the team with the sort of desperate loyalty that many in the stands would relate to. Miraculously, Jenkinson is one of just two players remaining from that famous photograph of Wenger’s English kids, and the other, Aaron Ramsey, is likely to depart by next summer. To an outside viewer, the Englishman seems perfectly content to see out his contract at the club, earning a tidy wage while getting to watch his favourite team from the poshest seats in the building.
However, a recent run of injuries has hit the fullback position hard, with Unai Emery turning to Granit Xhaka in each of the last two matches to fill in at left-back. However, with the Swiss midfielder in danger of running himself ragged, Emery needed to give him a rest before the weekend and it was Jenkinson he turned to fill the void. Playing on his weaker side, Jenkinson played extremely well for a player who hasn’t seen the pitch since last season, even showing a surprising turn of pace on the overlap.
It was his hustle down the left that lead to the second Arsenal goal of the night when Smith-Rowe scuffed home his deflected cross. Drawing on his experience, Jenkinson looked more comfortable than Xhaka dropping into the backline to defend, and overall he impressed a number of supporters with his effort and solid play. Though Blackpool are far from competitive Premier League quality, it is hard not to feel happy for a player who has kept his head down and kept working hard for the team, even as fans make light of his career trajectory. If nothing else, Jenkinson has proved himself a capable emergency fill-in should the need again arise for Unai Emery.
Cech Returns, Does Little To Win Back His Place
When Unai Emery was first acclimating to life in England, he elected to go with one of the most experienced goalkeepers in Premier League history, Petr Cech, in goal. Coming off of two years of steep statistical decline, Cech had a great summer, returning to the team looking much fitter than the previous season and playing fabulously in goal during the preseason. While fans were frustrated with his lack of ability to play out from the back and his presence keeping summer signing Bernd Leno consigned to the bench, a hamstring injury expedited the situation and saw Leno grab hold of a starting role with two gloved hands and quickly win the confidence of his manager and the fans.
Cech made his first start on Wednesday since getting injured against Watford a month prior, and almost immediately had fans pining for the youthfully athletic Leno. Cech was given little to do for much of the match, but he struggled when asked to play with the ball at his feet, nearly conceding the equalising goal late in the match after an ill-advised attempt to dribble around a pressuring attacker. He did little to help quell Blackpool’s aerial dominance in the second half as they started peppering the Arsenal box with crosses, and he could only stand a meekly watch their first goal of the night sail into the net just minutes after hitting the post. Cech’s performance was shaky and uneven, and Bernd Leno likely went to sleep last night feeling a little more secure in his place as Emery’s first choice goalkeeper.
Rash Guendouzi To Miss Liverpool Match
Few players have carved out a more unexpectedly prominent role in Emery’s squad this season as Matteo Guendouzi, and the 19-year-old Frenchman was once again awarded a start in Wednesday’s Carabao Cup showdown. In just 55 minutes on the pitch, the former Lorient midfielder demonstrated both his incredible maturity and lack of fear for a player his age, as well as that he still has much to learn to reach the heights his potential suggests.
At times in the first half, he looked the only player capable of transitioning the Gunners forward into the attacking phase. Aaron Ramsey was off the pace for much of the match, but Guendouzi was everywhere in the first half, making tackles and recycling possession efficiently when on the ball.
However, he was rightly booked in the first half for a rash challenge and needed to be much more careful in the second to avoid getting his marching orders. And yet, on a ball over his head just 10 minutes into the second half, he needlessly looped a lanky hand around his Jordan Thompson’s shoulder, who made the most of the impediment, tumbling to the turf. This saw Guendouzi receive his marching orders from a second yellow card and prevented the Gunners from cruising to an easy victory by leaving them a man short.
The challenge was a sign of the youngster’s inexperience, and the mandatory match ban will see him miss out when Liverpool come to the Emirates on Saturday for a match with serious top four implications. Guendouzi has a bright future in an Arsenal shirt, and he is on track to be a regular in the side for years to come. His red card will no doubt serve as a teachable moment, but his positive contribution to the team in this match cannot be overlooked.
One Up, One Down
Stephan Lichtsteiner had a difficult start to life in North London, his first action coming against the defending Premier League champions as an emergency substitute at left back. He then spent most of his time watching from the bench as Hector Bellerin recovered some of his old magic to lock down his own place as the starting right-back, but injuries have seen the veteran captain of the Swiss national team feature more often in recent weeks.
His combative style and ornery attitude have added a much-needed bite to the Arsenal defence, and his constant needling and wily tricks (a small tug here, a choice word there) have energised his fellow defenders. It was Lichtsteiner who netted the first goal of the evening, coming around the edge of the defence to get on the end of a cheeky lob from Guendouzi and poke it home. He never stopped running, doing well to mimic Bellerin’s ground covering runs up and down the right flank and he stood his ground against an aggressive Blackpool side. He may not ultimately supplant Bellerin as Emery’s preferred starter, but Lichtsteiner is beginning to flourish in his utilitarian role in the team.
On the other hand, Aaron Ramsey has been a shadow of his usual self since the very public breakdown in his contract negotiations with the club first came to light. Looking at times like he is trying to do everything all at once while simultaneously lacking the confidence in himself to perform, Ramsey cuts a desperate figure on the pitch. Against Blackpool, his performance was again erratic as Emery gave him a chance to go the distance in his preferred midfield role, which he failed to seize with any conviction.
With Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira already seizing more opportunities for themselves with their play thus far, and youngsters like Emile Smith-Rowe and Ainsley Maitland-Niles capable of performing in similar roles coming up through the ranks, it increasingly looks less likely that Ramsey’s time at the club will extend beyond this season, even if contract negotiations are resumed with more reasonable wage demands.