By Jacob Ambrose Willson - @JacobAW_1994
Arsenal cruised into the 5th round of the EFL Cup on Tuesday night, beating Championship side Reading in a relatively comfortable night at the Emirates. In light of Arsenal’s multi-faceted schedule, Arsene Wenger opted to ring the changes, bringing in a whole raft of fringe players to the starting XI, as is policy for this competition.
Making nine changes from the side at the weekend served two purposes, first to give key performers like Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil a midweek rest, second to allow others such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lucas Perez to stake their claims for a more regular starting berth.
On this occasion, Wenger’s decision to rotate was vindicated, as first-team outside Oxlade-Chamberlain netted a brace, giving the manager food for thought.
But now the Frenchman must consider his priorities as his side are one win away from a cup semi-final. The EFL cup quarter final match will take place at the end of November, in the middle of a gruelling run of fixtures at a crucial period in the season.
As the premier league slowly approaches the half-way stage and Arsenal’s Champions’ League group campaign reaches its finale, Wenger will have to fully utilise his squad if they are to stay on track in all competitions.
Rotation will be even more key for Arsenal as opposed to some of their domestic rivals in the coming weeks. Liverpool and Chelsea have no midweek European exploits this season, which is a huge domestic advantage and showed last weekend as they won their respective Premier League matches, whilst their rivals suffered the much-clichéd European ‘hangover’.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino has already sacrificed the EFL Cup, fearing a fixture pile-up as his Tottenham side navigate simultaneous Premier League and Champions League campaigns for the first time.
Therefore, to maintain competitiveness with his less-fixture burdened rivals, and to prevent mishaps like last weekend’s uninspired 0-0 home draw against Middlesbrough, Wenger must rotate, but rotate effectively.
Against Boro, Arsenal seemed lethargic and out of ideas in their attacking play. This sort of performance is no surprise coming on the back of a midweek Champions League fixture, and was exacerbated by Boro’s committed and stout approach to the game. However, Arsenal must find a way to win these games, even if the team is not firing on all cylinders.
The Gunners attacking play so far this season has been based on quick, incisive and direct moves, which is a pleasure to watch. However, they had no ‘plan B’ as attack after attack failed to penetrate Boro’s rigid banks of defenders.
But, another seemingly crucial positive to emerge from the EFL Cup victory over Reading was the return of striker Olivier Giroud from injury. The French target man’s skills may well provide another way of winning matches.
When faced with large banks of disciplined defenders, Arsenal find it harder to break the door down with their trademark Wengerball approach. Therefore, with Giroud’s powerful aerial presence and intelligent near post runs, Arsenal are blessed with a ready-made alternative.
In this type of game, set-pieces, crosses and cutbacks towards Giroud may be the key to finding the net, and with Ozil and Cazorla, Arsenal have players with the quality to find the big Frenchman. A breakdown of Ozil’s assists last season will reflect this, as many were set-pieces landing on Giroud’s or Koscielny’s head.
So, for Arsenal to successfully compete on all fronts, they must embrace squad rotation as key players will inevitably tire in the face of a heavy schedule and under-perform. However, sometimes this will come down to more than just player rotation, but rather system rotation, as the Gunners will face teams who set up to stifle their free-flowing attacking play.
Arsenal undoubtedly have a squad big enough to perform on multiple fronts, as players under-used thus far, such as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ramsey and Giroud all have the ability to make positive contributions to games. However, it remains to be seen how well Wenger can stitch together a ‘plan B’ approach, and what impact injuries will have on Arsenal’s season.