Even though the game was being hyped as a rerun of the dramatic and nerve-shredding FA Cup final back in May, Arsenal’s third round victory over the same opponents was a much more low-key affair. Both sides made changes, although Arsenal were limited by the number of injuries in the squad, and Steve Bruce’s side didn’t look very likely to cause the Gunners many problems at Emirates Stadium.
The match could easily have meandered away as expectant home fans waiting for Arsenal to win the game and, as in most games this season, Alexis Sanchez was the spark. When the Chilean arrived in the summer, Arsenal fans knew they’d signed a fantastic player, but it wasn’t clear quite how brilliant he was because of always being in the shadows of others at Barcelona. At Arsenal, he’s been the main man and he’s relished that role.
Starting as the central player in a front three with Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell, Alexis often dropped in to receive the ball in midfield, but unlike when he was central against Southampton, he had willing runners to go beyond him towards goal. The Chilean also led the line defensively by constantly putting Hull’s back-line and holding midfielders under pressure. For someone who has played the most minutes of any outfielder for Arsenal this season, his work-rate and stamina are remarkable. There are concerns about him being fatigued, but he doesn’t show it when on the pitch. Hopefully with Arsenal entering a period of one game a week for the next month, he can recover a bit from the hectic festive schedule.
Given his influence on the game, it wasn’t a surprise that Alexis was heavily involved in both goals. His corner to the back post was perfect for Per Mertesacker to nod in the opening goal, and as the game threatened to get a bit tense for Arsenal after missing chances to kill it off, Alexis produced a superb finish into the bottom corner from the edge of the box to seal the place in round four.
The brilliance, and obvious good form, shown by Alexis did contrast with the forward players flanking the Chilean; Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell. While Alexis has been involved in almost everything good Arsenal have done this season, from a combination of injuries and being down the pecking order, both Walcott and Campbell are trying to find form and fitness. While there were sparks from both, there were also plenty of occasions when, if they’d had a run of games, the end product would have been better. Both players can look at Alexis as the perfect example of how to apply yourself in games, and with Podolski gone and Sanogo likely to join him out of the loan door, chances to play should come more regularly.
For Theo Walcott in particular, a run of games is vital to regain form and fitness. Unlike almost any other player in he squad, Walcott is keen to run onto the shoulder of the last defender and look to get in on goal. This did mean that there were times when Hector Bellerin was isolated on the right hand side as Walcott didn’t look to hug the touchline, but as he gets a run of games, he’ll get the balance right between staying wide and darting inside to go through on the goalkeeper. It was just good to see him in the starting XI a year after the injury against Tottenham.
While things were interesting up front with the pace of the front three, things were much calmer at the back as Arsenal managed to keep their first clean sheet since the beginning of December. After the calamitous showing at Southampton, it was a relief to fans and players that Hull offered very little in terms of an attacking threat. Calum Chambers gave his most assured performance for a few weeks, and Hector Bellerin impressed at full-back again.
Despite the mistakes at Southampton, it was always planned for Wojciech Szczesny to miss out on Sunday, although the performance of David Ospina was being watched much more closely because of the Pole’s poor errors on the south coast. Because of the lack of quality in the Hull attack, the Colombian goalkeeper was rarely tested, so it remains to be seen whether he retains the position in goal for the visit of Stoke next week. If newspaper reports about Szczesny lighting up in the dressing room after the Southampton game are true, I’d be surprised if Arsene Wenger doesn’t give Ospina his first Premier League start against the Potters, even though he’ll have to face a barrage of high balls into the box. Dropping Szczesny should hurt him more than a £20,000 fine.
Overall, a comfortable win was just what Arsenal needed on Sunday. The Christmas period generally was negotiated pretty well by Arsenal, it’s just disappointing that the Southampton defeat was the abiding memory of it. Still, it was a good way to begin the defence of the FA Cup, and the reward is a fun away tie to Brighton.