Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat at home to Southampton on Wednesday might only have been in the EFL Cup, so in the grand scheme of things isn’t that important for the rest of the season, and may even benefit Arsenal with less fixtures in January, but it was still an incredibly frustrating night at Emirates Stadium as a rotated team failed to take their chance to press claims for regular first-team starts.
With 10 alterations made to the starting XI from the weekend’s game with Bournemouth, some have been quick to question why Arsene Wenger made so many changes as it was a quarter-final, but I have no issues with the team he selected. With important league games coming up, and the likes of Shkodran Mustafi, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez being so integral to the team, they have to be protected and kept fresh where possible. If anything, the lacklustre performances from some of their replacements on Wednesday night only reinforced the need to keep the key players fit and justified the decision to give them a breather in the League Cup.
The bigger issue was how the team picked didn’t gel together and lacked the cutting edge to create enough good chances against a well-drilled Southampton team. Arsenal’s team wasn’t like League Cup games in seasons gone-by where the team sheet was full of unknowns from the youth team, it was virtually all first-teamers who needed some game time. Jenkinson, Gabriel, Gibbs, Coquelin, Elneny, Ramsey and Lucas Perez are all hardly novices in the game, and of the other youngsters who appeared, Alex Iwobi, Rob Holding and Emi Martinez have already made important first-team contributions. What was frustrating was how Arsenal seemed to lack intensity and focus for a lot of the game, which hadn’t been the case in previous rounds against Nottingham Forest and Reading. The tournament might not be high on the priority list for the club, but for some of the players involved on Wednesday, it represented their best chance of first-team appearances in the new year, and to see the rather meek exit from the competition was disappointing.
Southampton were much more efficient in front of goal as they scored from their only two real attacks in the first half. First Jordy Clasie hammered the ball in from the edge of the area after Rob Holding had to make a scrambling block, before Ryan Bertrand doubled the lead when his shot snuck between the legs of Holding and into the far corner past Emiliano Martinez. Having gained an early lead, Southampton were set up well to soak up any Arsenal pressure with a flat midfield five in front of a solid back four, with Shane Long as the option up front to play on the break.
Unfortunately for the Gunners, Carl Jenkinson endured a difficult evening at right-back as he still tries to find some match sharpness after coming back from a serious knee injury. With Hector Bellerin still out and Mathieu Debuchy only lasting 15 minutes against Bournemouth, Arsene Wenger does have a problem at right-back if Jenkinson continues to struggle. Ainsley Maitland-Niles did well when he came on in the second-half, but the young midfielder has extremely limited experience of playing in that position, so it would be a gamble to play him there in the coming weeks. Gabriel did well enough as a make-shift full-back against Bournemouth, but the Gunners do lose something in their attacking game when a centre-back has to cover as a full-back. My suspicion is that Jenkinson will continue to get a chance, partly out of necessity, and partly because the manager does have an appreciation that he is still getting up to speed following the knee injury. As Southampton did to good effect in the EFL Cup, it will be area that opposition teams will look to exploit while Bellerin remains unavailable, so the winger in front of the right-back will have to offer more protection than Jeff Reine-Adelaide did on Wednesday.
The other conundrum for Arsene Wenger to solve that wasn’t made any clearer on Wednesday is the centre of the midfield. It’s been confirmed that Santi Cazorla is going to have surgery to sort his ankle problem, so is likely to be out for a further three months. All four of the players competing for the two central positions behind Mesut Ozil made appearances on Wednesday, and none of them were particularly convincing. Mohamed Elneny went off feeling unwell, and Granit Xhaka did improve Arsenal’s tempo when he came on, but there will now be an expectation on the Swiss international to use his range of passing to try and control the pace of games in the way Cazorla does.
Aaron Ramsey also got an opportunity to play as the number 10 on Wednesday, and struggled to make an impact in his preferred position. The Welshman has had a stop-start season because of injury, and it’s been hard for him to gain form as he’s been moved all the way around the midfield, but as one of the most experienced players in the team on Wednesday, there was an expectation that he’d grab his chance to impress in the freer role. It might have been different had Alexis Sanchez been up front, but Ramsey didn’t gel with Lucas Perez as the two looked on a different wavelength for most of the game.
Rather than providing encouragement that the Arsenal squad has plenty in reserve to deal with an injury problems, the defeat to Southampton raised more questions rather than give Arsene Wenger answers to a few potential problem positions in his team. If the Gunners win at West Ham on Saturday, this defeat will be forgotten quickly. But it won’t change that this game felt like a chance missed both in terms of progressing in the EFL Cup, and for certain players to stake a claim to be more involved in the first team.