Arsenal 3-1 Sunderland
Arsenal reached the fourth round of the FA Cup on Saturday as they mounted their defence of the cup they had retained last May with a controlled win against Sunderland.
Arsene Wenger has a fine record in this competition, with no manager in the history of the game having won football’s oldest club competition on more occasions than the Frenchman.In fact such is Wenger’s fine history in the FA Cup that he has also never lost in the third round, a fine record indeed.
Yet Arsenal are serious about mounting a championship challenge this season and with an important league game coming up against Liverpool, who rested several players during their own FA Cup game, Wenger elected for 5 changes to his side. Mesut Ozil has long needed a rest and the manager elected to use this weekend for this purpose, Flamini was also rested as the club’s only fit defensive midfielder as were Per Mertesacker and Aaron Ramsey.
With the majority of the changes taking place in the midfield, as Wenger also decided to start with youngster Alex Iwobi, the Gunners struggled for fluency during the early stages of the game. However Iwobi did perform well, showcasing a number of key skills that point to a bright future. The nephew of former Premier League star Jay Jay Okocha showed the skill, tenacity and awareness required to perform at the highest level. Iwobi is not lacking in confidence either and was prepared to take on shots when the opportunity presented itself, as well as identifying when to the lay the ball off to a teammate.
Iwobi was involved in the build up to the first Arsenal goal, an equaliser in the 26th minute, after Sunderland had taken a shock lead with their first real effort on goal. It was a goal that Arsenal gifted to the Black Cats as Kieran Gibbs played a poor pass to Koscielny at the back and as the centre back attempted to get the ball under control Jeremain Lens stole it off him and fired home.
Although Arsenal had gone behind there wasn’t that sense of anxiety around the stadium that often greets such situations at the Emirates. In fact it was a rather calm atmosphere as the home crowd got behind their team with a sense that the Gunners would soon restore parity. Had it taken them longer than the 9 minutes it took for Joel Campbell to score the equaliser, maybe the crowd’s anxiety levels would have increased, but on this occasions they needn’t have worried.
This was a game in which Arsenal really clicked in the final third at times and when they did, Sunderland just couldn’t live with them. In fact each goal was a thing of beauty as slick passing and quick movement from the home side opened up the black cat’s defence. For the first goal, Iwobi slipped the ball wide to Theo Walcott on the wing and as the Englishman raced towards the by line, Joel Campbell’s excellent movement from the opposite wing saw the Costa Rican find himself in space in the middle of the penalty area, to collect Walcott’s cut back and steer the ball home with a precise finish. Campbell has been excellent since being given the opportunity to impress and his performance on Saturday was once again full of energy, commitment and desire.
Wenger would have been keen to avoid a replay and therefore would have been relieved when substitute Aaron Ramsey put the Gunners ahead. Goal scorer Campbell was involved in the build-up but this was a goal that owed much to the attacking attributes of Hector Bellerin. The right back is a constant threat when attacking down the right flank, with his outstanding pace causing the opposition numerous problems. In the 72nd minute Campbell and Bellerin combined brilliantly, playing a one-two to release the Spaniard. Bellerin surged forward to collect the return ball and showed great awareness to pick out Ramsey in box. The Welshman was completely free and was able to steer the ball into the corner of the net to give his side the lead.
Four minutes later and the result was put beyond any doubt. This time it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who picked out Bellerin on the right flank with a wonderful pass with the outside of his foot. Bellerin attacked the Sunderland full back and played a perfect ball across the box, dissecting the Sunderland defence and finding Olivier Giroud at the back post, for the Frenchman to poke home.
Wenger will be pleased to have continued his fine recent run in the FA Cup with his side having last lost in 2013. As a manager who has a fine history of developing young talent, the performance of Iwobi will also have brought a smile to his face. Although the Nigerian tired in the second half, he showed he can perform against a Premiership side and therefore could be an option for the second half of the season if required.
The focus now turns to the difficult away game in the league on Wednesday as the Gunners travel to Liverpool. If Arsenal can get a victory there then they will really start to believe that this can be their year. Unfortunately Alexis Sanchez will not return in time for that game but should be back for the following game against Stoke. With Wenger also confirming the club hope to conclude the deal for Mohammed Elneny in the coming days and Callum Chambers performing well in the defensive midfield role once again, the midfield department suddenly doesn’t look as threadbare as it did a few weeks ago. Hopefully the Gunners can avoid any more serious injuries for the rest of the season as they have certainly had their fair share. The club is in a positive position at the moment and fans will simply hope they can keep this up and not let momentum slip.