Having made the trip to Sheffield last year for Arsenal’s embarrassing efforts at Hillsborough in the League Cup, I went into this year’s third round trip to Nottingham Forest in the rebadged EFL Cup weary that a much-changed Arsenal side could struggle again against a fired-up Championship team, especially with a few former Arsenal players in Forest ranks. As it turned out, Arsenal put in a professional performance and eased into the next round with a resounding 4-0 victory.
Early in that 3-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday last season, you could sense that the players weren’t up for the fight. That wasn’t the case on Tuesday at the City Ground. Having made 11 changes, Arsene Wenger picked a team of players who were keen to take their chance to impress. While there was the usual smattering of youth players that get an opportunity in this competition, the current strength of the squad meant some experienced players who needed a bit of game time blended the team together well.
No-one stood out more than Granit Xhaka. The Swiss international is being eased into English football by Arsene Wenger, with Xhaka building up confidence and a feel for the game in this country. Although it was only against Championship opposition, it was impressive how Xhaka ran the game on Tuesday night, dictating the pace and tempo of the match alongside Mohamed Elneny. He looked like a £35 million player in the way he took responsibility and control of the match for Gunners, which didn’t allow the home team to build-up a head of steam and create many chances. For some big money signings, a trip to a lower division club in the least-important cup competition might have meant a complacent performance, but Xhaka got stuck in to win the ball back before displaying his range of passing. His performance will only intensify calls for a regular place in the starting XI.
To cap his performance, and as a tasty follow-up to his piledriver at Hull on Saturday, Xhaka lamped another shot into the top corner from miles out to give Arsenal the lead on the night. It did take a slight deflection from the midfielder trying to close him down, but such was the power on the shot, the goalkeeper got a hand on the ball but couldn’t stop it from going into the net. To have a player with the confidence and the ability to take a shot on from distance does mean that Arsenal can vary their attacks up a little bit more. It is just another dimension to Granit’s game that makes him look like the real deal in central midfield.
Before Arsenal scored, Pajtim Kasami should have opened the scoring after a slack pass from Gabriel put Rob Holding in a bit of trouble, but the Forest midfielder scuffed his effort wide. Nicklas Bendtner then went close to his fairytale goal with a flashing shot that went wide from outside the box. That was as good as it got for the hosts as Emiliano Martinez’s goal was rarely threatened otherwise.
In the second half, while it remained only 1-0, Arsenal had to be weary of not doing anything stupid, and giving the hosts an easy way back into the game. But the result was virtually secured when Chuba Akpom was pushed over in the box by Mancienne, allowing Lucas Perez to stroke home his first Arsenal goal from the penalty spot.
Lucas Perez put in a good shift up front, and while service to him was a bit limited in the first half, he worked hard to put pressure on the centre-backs and made himself available with some clever off-the-ball movement. After scoring from the spot, his endeavour was rewarded again as he latched onto a through ball, barged his way past Mancienne and rounded the goalkeeper to slot in for a brace. There’s always a slight doubt that some new players might not be able to deal with some of the physical rigours of English football, but it was encouraging to see Perez show determination and strength to fight his way through to score his second goal.
The Spaniard had a couple of openings to wrap up a hat-trick, but the win was eventually rounded off in injury time by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. After another indifferent evening for a man who looks hopelessly out of form, he came alive in injury time as a flowing passing move culminated in the Ox leaving the ball for Lucas Perez to flick the ball back into the path of the flying winger. Oxlade-Chamberlain then drew the goalkeeper out and slid the ball home. Hopefully that’ll be the confidence booster he needs to push on as he has all the talent but seems to lack the belief or understanding with his team mates at key moments.
Apart from bizarrely being offered a pie by a pitch invader, things couldn’t have gone much better for Arsene Wenger on Tuesday as he was able to rest the key first-teamers, but get a performance full of determination from those trying to break into the starting XI on a regular basis. Players like Kieran Gibbs, Gabriel and Elneny got much-needed game time, while youngsters like Emiliano Martinez, Chuba Akpom and Jeff Reine-Adelaide all acquitted themselves well.
With a stronger squad this season, while not directly targeting it above the other competitions, the EFL Cup should be one in which Arsenal can have a decent run. Although I suspect that come the next round, Granit Xhaka could be one of the first-teamers rested, because on the evidence of Tuesday, he could and should be a regular fixture in the Arsenal team sooner rather than later.