It wasn’t electric by any means, but Arsenal are through.
On the balance of play, it was a win that was certainly deserved without being much to write home about. Christian Fuchs’ own goal and a late poacher’s finish from Eddie Nketiah ensured Arsenal booked their place in the fourth round of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday evening.
Despite making seven changes from the 2-1 win over West Ham, Mikel Arteta still fielded a strong side at the King Power Stadium, one that was mostly untroubled against a Leicester outift that also had began the season unbeaten prior to kick off.
A goalless first half that was edged by the Gunners on the balance of play saw Reiss Nelson force a flying save from Danny Ward, although it was James Maddison who came closest to opening the scoring after seeing his curling effort flick off the post.
Mostly untroubled in the second period, Arteta’s team secured the victory that means the Spaniard continues his winning run in cup competitions as a manager.
Here’s what we learned from the third round clash.
Rob Holding Won’t Keep His Place Against Liverpool
Kelechi Iheanacho and Demarai Gray are no slouches, but they are not in the Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah calibre of lightening quick. Rob Holding, as seen against the Foxes, simply can’t deal with pace. He hasn’t got any himself.
David Luiz came into the starting lineup and wore the armband, but while he’s not exactly rapid, he showed all the qualities you’d hope to see from a central defender. Smart with his passing, strong at set pieces, assured in possession and willing to carry the ball to move his side up the pitch, Holding, sadly, did not look anywhere near as composed.
There were a few nervy moments coupled with a few dashes of solidity, but the overall showing he put in strongly indicates that we’ll see a Luiz-Gabriel Magalhaes-Kieran Tierney back three for the trip to Anfield.
This is in no way a declaration that he is ‘finished’ at the club, of course, far from it. The issue centres around his mobility in that defence, whether it is a back three or as part of a two-man pairing.
Given his distribution, Luiz will always occupy the central spot of the three, an area where his own speed issues can’t be as exposed. This would suit Holding more, but he hasn’t got the range of pass to dictate play from that role, and is far more vulnerable shifted slightly further wide.
There will be matches where the Englishman’s skillset will suit, but it isn’t at Anfield.
Reiss Nelson is Lacking Match Sharpness
All the talk ahead of kick off centred around the possibility of Reiss Nelson being sent out on loan this summer. Based off that performance, he won’t be short of takers. There was a willingness to be progressive on the ball, run at his man and stretch the play, but it’s evident that he is lacking on match sharpness.
There were a few tetchy moments in the first half where his first touch wasn’t quite there, but that boils down to him not having regular competitive minutes on the pitch.
There are no qualms with his confidence, though. Even in the early stages he cut in off his unfavoured left wing slot to have a pop at goal, coming ever so close to opening the scoring in spectacular fashion.
Despite being fielded on the opposite flank, there was a professionalism to his play that should be commended, as well as an understanding of his defensive duties.
A loan will suit him as he is far down the pecking order at present, with there being little doubt he won’t be a big asset to a number of sides in the Premier League.
Arsenal Struggle to Get the Best Out of Nicolas Pepe
It was clear with Arteta’s lineup that he wanted to have Ainsley Maitland-Niles playing behind Nicolas Pepe, since the two have shown the best combination play of all those to line up on the right hand side with the Ivorian.
Unfortunately, Maitland-Niles looked lost at sea down that flank. Having been utilised as a left wing-back on many occasions of late, the positional alteration clearly rattled him, where he left spaces to exploit and was unsure of his role tactically.
This limited Pepe’s output – as did the preference to attack down the left – who offered very little in an attacking sense. Sometimes it comes across as if even Pepe doesn’t know what he wants to do. He has such an obsession (dependency) with using his left foot, as the chops inside slowed down any momentum in attacking phases and allowed the Foxes to get back into cover.
Only on rare occasions have we seen the Gunners play to his strengths. Sheffield United away in the FA Cup last season was one such example, where he benefited greatly from Joe Willock on that day making darting runs in between the full-back and central defender.
However, such instances are few and far between.
It isn’t all tactical, though. Pepe himself shouldn’t need to rely on the other players around him to produce his best. He can be forgiven for it being his fist start of the season, but it’s evident that the balance in approach to suit his abilities is a tougher nut to crack than first thought.
Mohamed Elneny Should Stay at Arsenal
Is Mohamed Elneny regular starting material for Arsenal in the Premier League? Well, at present he probably is, but if the club are to re-imagine themselves as a top four side again, then no, better quality is needed.
That said, he’s playing his best football in red and white of late. Acting as the deepest midfielder to collect possession from Bernd Leno‘s short passes, there are few players in the squad quite as composed in tight areas as the Egyptian. Sure, he isn’t going to slalom his way out of a tackle a la Dani Ceballos, nor is he going to hit a 50-yard cross field pass in the vein of Granit Xhaka, but as far as solid options go in a midfield-weak squad, he’ll do just fine.
Once again on Wednesday night, he rarely put a foot wrong. Coming back into a club following a loan spell when so much change is afoot, he’s knuckled down and focussed on producing his best football. A damn fine job of that he’s doing, too.
Keeping him for competitions such as these, or when injury strikes, would be a wise choice on Arteta’s part. These days, it is increasingly difficult to find players in the form he’s in who are content with not playing each and every week.
Even if just for the 2020/21 season, in just a few short outings, Elneny has proven his worth to Arsenal as they look to challenge on multiple fronts. Who doesn’t love a player renaissance, eh?