Youth Plays Part In Routine Arsenal Victory Over Blackpool
The FA Cup. Once one of the most illustrious trophies an English club can win, modern times have relegated the oldest national football competition in the world to the third most important competition a club like Arsenal can win. Television revenue for European competition and the lucrative Premier League has greatly reduced the status of the FA Cup, but something of its magic still remains in the way it can drastically reshape the fortunes of a lower level side that goes on an inspired run. The money may be peanuts to the big boys of the Premier League top six, but for opponents like Blackpool, a televised match against one of the world’s most recognisable clubs in the world can be the high water mark of a long season.
It is in this spirit that Arsenal have always respected the competition, with former manager Arsene Wenger often praised for his classy gestures to opposing managers following such encounters. New head coach Unai Emery got his first taste of the competition on Saturday, as Arsenal travelled north to take on Blackpool in the third round of action,
A Professional Win
Throughout the long and arduous football league calendar, some matches have little trouble capturing the hype and imagination of fans. North London Derbies and top six rivalry matches with genuine league position implications are easy to get excited for. European nights have a special feel about them, even when played on Thursdays. Even in the later rounds of domestic cup competitions, when silverware is in sight and the opponents are equally talented and hungry, can inspire fans to rise to the occasion.
A sleepy third round FA Cup encounter in grey Blackpool on a shoddy pitch against a League One side? Unlikely to stir the loins. And yet, no matter how arbitrary it seems, the match must still be played, and it can provide fans with a unique opportunity to see the future of the club in action. Coming off an intense wave of fixtures during the holiday season, Unai Emery was happy to give his most important players the evening off, turning instead to a mix of squad players and young academy graduates to get the job done.
The pitch conditions and half empty stands, the direct result of a protest against Blackpool owner Owen Oyston, lent themselves to atmosphere that felt more amateur than an FA Cup encounter should, but the Arsenal players were able to find their focus and cruise to an uncontested 3-0 victory. Impressively, the veterans who did make the trip north, a list including Aaron Ramsey, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Mohammed Elneny and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, showed little indication of feeling the occasion was beneath them. The defence lacked shape at times as the Gunners aggressively pursued goals against the overmatched Blackpool eleven, but the players maintained their level throughout and will be happy to punch their ticket into the next round.
Unai Emery, a man who maintains a singular focus on whichever match is in front of him, will have been happy with the effort on display from his players. The longer Arsenal are able to navigate their non-league competitions without requiring a team full of their most important players, the more rested those players will remain for the vital matches at the end of the season. In the ever tightening race for those all-important top four league positions, the team that best manages their fitness levels will have an advantage as the season enters the home stretch.
Willock Turns Heads
At first, it was quite hard to fathom. 2 summers ago, as Joe Willock joined a group of academy graduates making their initial strides toward the first team that included Eddie Nketiah, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Reiss Nelson, he was the one most fans were least excited about. Without the knack for scoring goals of Nketiah, the flair of Nelson or the impressive athleticism and positional versatility of Maitland-Niles, it was a little hard to envision him making the grade. Appearing all at once competent at many things but excelling at few, nothing about his play suggested he would be one to watch out for in the future.
Fast forward to this season, and Willock is beginning to prove those doubts may have been premature. The past year has been kind to his physical development, with the player who took the pitch on Saturday both taller and more muscular than the one we saw last year getting pushed off the ball too easily in his appearances as part of the “cup squad” that Wenger used for much of the non-Premier League matches in his final campaign. The somewhat languid running style has developed into a graceful, loping gait that suggests effortless acceleration, and he barely seems to lose any of his pace when carrying the ball at his feet. His tactical awareness and confidence have grown leaps and bounds over the past year, and much of the credit for his development should go to u23 manager Freddie Ljungberg, who has deployed Willock in a slightly more advanced position this season to great effect.
Against Blackpool, Willock was easily one of the most impressive Arsenal players on the pitch. Playing as a number 10, Willock was constantly involved in the action, taking 47 touches, laying on two key passes and netting a brace en route to the Arsenal victory. He even showed up defensively, winning an aerial duel, making four tackles and adding an interception to go along with his excellent attacking output. Most importantly, he looked like he belonged on the pitch with his teammates, and this is sure the excite Emery about his future development at the club.
Held In Cech
The end of a player’s career as an unquestioned starter in his team can come suddenly and without warning. For Petr Cech, that moment came with one swing of the leg against Watford, where the keeper immediately went to ground clutching at his hamstring with a look of anguish on his face. Just like that, a man who had been on track for his best season since his prime years with Chelsea was relegated to second choice behind summer arrival Bernd Leno. His hamstring eventually healed, but his place now appears lost forever to the younger German, whose style is far more suited to Unai Emery’s preference for playing out from the back.
Since his return, Cech has been relegated to action in Cup matches and the occasional European encounter. Despite his unwelcome demotion, the Czech legend has proved exactly why his reputation is beyond reproach, and his professionalism and team-first mentality have remained.
Against Blackpool, he was finally given the nod for the first time since losing 2-0 to Tottenham in the Carabao Cup, and he proved to be just as sharp as ever. Despite Blackpool’s impotent attack, the Arsenal defence showed it’s customary cracks, conceding 11 shots to the League One outfit with four finding the mark. However, Cech was ready when called upon and managed to keep a clean sheet for the fifth time this season while displaying a command of his penalty area that occasionally still eludes Leno.
At this point, it is hard to imagine a situation in which Cech regains his status as first choice in Unai Emery’s side, but the Gunners can truly consider themselves lucky to have such a competent back up waiting in the wings should poor form or injury strike Leno during the business end of the season.
A Future Further Forward
If Joe Willock needed some time to show off some of his best attributes to the Emirates faithful, one player that had no such issue was Ainsley Maitland-Niles. The young Englishman practically exploded onto the scene in 2017, fighting his way into Arsene Wenger’s first team plans over the course of the season and displaying his incredible positional versatility. He earned game time in both the Premier League and in Europe, managing to clock over 900 minutes in the league and adding 700 more in the Europa League, many of which came as an emergency left wing back following injuries to Sead Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal. His performances had Wenger soon purring that he is the future of English football and this Arsenal team; high praise from a man who had seen his share of talent pass through the doors of the club in his 22 year tenure.
However, one issue remained when assessing Maitland-Niles’ future: what would be his best position? Despite an impressive showing in defence for a player who had never played there before, his preference, and indeed his skill set, fits best in the centre of the park. With exceptional pace, close control and a surprisingly advanced ability to read the game for a player his age, it isn’t difficult to imagine him as a press-breaking midfielder who is capable of beating defenders in close quarters.
Granit Xhaka’s stranglehold on a place in the midfield and the summer acquisitions of Lucas Torreira and Matteo Guendouzi mean there are several players fighting for just two positions in the central midfield. With this in mind, and considering the dearth of wingers currently in the team, Unai Emery has given Maitland-Niles a look in a more advanced role out wide on the right flank. He was handed the start in that position against Blackpool and despite figuring little in the result, his pace and power down the right side caused serious problems for the hosts.
The injury crisis in defence has seen his role as a deputy defender continue into this season, but he is finally getting a chance to impress in a role more suited to his abilities. With Henrikh Mhkitaryan the only other player to display any real promise on the right flank, Maitland-Niles could see his opportunities multiply in the second half of the season. Unai Emery has already showed a willingness to trust his young midfielder, even going as far as starting him at both left and right back this season in a flat back four, but if he is intent on getting the best out of the young Englishman, a regular berth on the right flank may just be the best way forward.