Arsenal progressed serenely to the Quarter-Final stage of the EFL Cup, with a straightforward victory over Jaap Stam’s Reading side, as Arsene Wenger gave many of his young talents a chance to shine on the big stage.
I was lucky enough to attend this game, and after the pilgrimage to Piebury and The Tollington, myself, @GreeneBantern and @SimplyEnigmatic made our way to the stadium.
Just as we left the watering hole, the team was announced, and it was fair to say the biggest surprise was seeing Ainslie Maitland-Niles named in the centre of midfield. Whilst the talent is there, to be given a central role is a huge responsibility and it must have been an honour and extra pressure simultaneously for the youngster.
Just before we entered The Emirates, I must add that I saw a dear friend who I hadn’t seen in over fifteen years. A fellow Gooner and an erudite chap, it was honestly great to shoot the breeze after so long.
Arsenal really does have the capacity to improve your day!
Back to the game, and Martinez once again started in goal, but it was in defence that perhaps carried most danger.
The seats we had in the East Stand allowed for excellent viewing, and they provided us with the chance to really dissect each performance. It was like a FIFA game, as we were level with the halfway line, as opposed to our usual seats in the North Bank.
The promising Rob Holding was alongside Gabriel in the heart of the backline. Normally the requirement for an inexperienced defender is to be partnered with a seasoned veteran, and the rash Brazilian is not exactly the sage influence that would soothe a fretting 21 year old.
We needn’t have worried.
Mohamed Elneny continued in the centre of midfield, and the attack looked full of vibrancy, with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide just behind Lucas Perez as the sole striker.
The last few occasions we have faced the Royals, they have provided the sternest of tests, but new coach Jaap Stam seems to have instructed his team to play calmly and play out from the back, which played into the hands of the Gunners.
We started well, and fan favourite Carl Jenkinson had a great chance to break the deadlock, only for Royals keeper Ali Al-Habsi to parry, and Jenkinson could only head the second chance over.
Reading stood off Arsenal, inviting the young home team to try and play around them – and on a few occasions we did.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was the man who put Arsenal a goal up, and it was the away teams insistence on starting moves from the back which gave The Ox a chance to shoot as two Reading defenders backed off – and he simply picked out the far corner.
It stemmed from the pressure we put on a flustered defence, but the pressing died a little as Reading started to push a little, but it seemed as if Arsenal could break through at will.
The Ox’s second goal came from Rob Holding beating his man on the right of the penalty area, and when second half substitute Olivier Giroud laid the ball off, The Ox fired a bullet toward goal. A deflection meant it eluded Al-Habsi – and the key deflection may just have come from Alex Iwobi.
There was much more to see during the ninety minutes, but here are five points that occurred on the pitch that are worth reading about:
Elneny Man of the Match
The Egyptian’s first start Vs Middlesbrough in the weekend showed how rusty from lack of minutes Elneny was. This game required a steady hand on the tiller though. So many kids on the pitch that need an experienced colleague to dictate when required, and Elneny was that man. So often he was the player who put his foot on the ball and sprayed it wide to stretch play. So often he won possession when Reading were just starting to build a head of steam. Elneny was the player we needed, and he showed that he is more than able.
The Ox deserves some credit
Too often I have written of the Ox’s failures, but his display in this match showed his maturity and initiative. We are all aware he has the talent, but in this game, he was the player who took the game by the scruff of the neck in the flat spots of play, and he made things happen. He was also defensively diligent, which is a rare occurrence. I dearly hope this is a turned corner, as he was a delight to watch.
Rob Holding is all that
With a central defensive pairing of Gabriel and Holding, the potential for disaster was high. Not that they are incompetent, but chemistry is a huge factor for centre-backs, and these two have not played together since pre-season. Plus, Gabriel is known to be a tad on the rash side, but this game needed him to be the wise head for his younger partner. However, Holding showed positional astuteness, great instincts, and his physicality was just as good as his Brazilian colleague. Holding looked like a defender about six or seven years his senior. If he continues his trajectory, then greatness beckons. A really classy game for Holding.
Reading should have pressed
If the Royals had adjusted their game plan according to the Arsenal teamsheet, then they would have harried their opposition. A less-experienced player is usually more inclined to panic on the big stage, but Reading kept to their gameplan, which meant they would invite pressure and when in possession, attempt to pass and move. They didn’t, thankfully, give Arsenal as many nightmares as in previous cup games, but to be fair to Arsenal, I think that they would have coped. Still, Jaap Stam could have thrown caution to the wind.
Lucas Perez looks tasty
The swarthy Spaniard was given another shot as he was in the previous round, and although he didn’t register on the scoresheet or provide an assist, this performance was maybe a little more telling. Lucas was industrious, and harried as much as he could in his lone role. He had little to work with, but his endeavours were worthy of a reward he never received in the form of a goal. If he continues to put in as much effort as he did in this game, then he will be a fantastic asset.
There was much more to write about. Much has been made of the man known only as ‘Jeff,’ and he was tidy enough in possession, but there was little thrills or spills from the exciting talent. His time will come. Alex Iwobi looked a little tired but that is completely understandable, and Jenkinson impressed on the right of defence. Also worth noting is Keiran Gibbs, who played in the stalemate in the weekend, but showed no ill-effects. He led the line well as Skipper.
All in all, a comfortable enough victory, but not without a spirited if uninspired opposition. The future rounds will be tougher, but the fact we are still in the cup should be celebrated. It gives our fringe players a vital runout, and any chance for silverware should be embraced.