Will there ever be a time when Arsenal stop trying to make everything so difficult for themselves? Despite eventually escaping with the victory, Arsenal again gave their fans something to worry about in their League Cup (or Carabao, if you’re a television presenter who must cite sponsors) match with Norwich City. It was anything but easy for the Gunners, as the Canaries were able to strike first blood on the night. The resultant confidence boost and a pressing Arsenal team allowed Norwich to grow even more into the match, even getting the bulk of the scoring opportunities during a 20 minute stretch to open the second half. However, the class of the hosts eventually shined through, and it will be Arsenal that moves on to the Quarter Finals of the competition.
It only took 5 seconds for Eddie Nketiah to turn an 85 minute exercise in mediocrity into a spirited comeback as he equalised on his first touch, a loose ball in the box after a Jack Wilshere corner. As if saving his club from early elimination wasn’t enough, Nketiah struck again, this time on a clean header, again from a Wilshere corner to give the Gunners the lead and put them through to the quarter finals of the Carabao Cup. The goals were the first and second of the 18 year old’s career with the senior club. His impactful performance on Tuesday could see him earn even more minutes as the season progresses, perhaps even joining Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and Joe Willock as Arsene Wenger’s preferred young players for the lesser matches in league and European cup competitions.
A former Chelsea youth product who was cut loose because of concerns he wouldn’t be able to stand the physical rigours of the Premier League, Nketiah is a technically proficient forward who uses his pace and guile to score lots of goals, as he has been for the Arsenal U23s. Despite not growing up from the beginning with Arsenal like his teammate Reiss Nelson, Nketiah nevertheless looks like an Arsenal player, through and through. If Alexandre Lacazette draws comparisons to Gunner legend Ian Wright, it is a young Jermaine Pennant who springs or mind when thinking of Nketiah, whose pace and important goals early in his career quickly drew excitement from the fans at a Highbury. If Tuesday’s hero had been escaping the notice of most supports up to this point, he has surly caught their attention now.
Great Big Cajones
After embarrassingly losing to Watford two weekends ago, striker Troy Deeney called the Gunners out, citing a lack of cojones as the reason why Arsenal gave up their lead and then conceded the Watford match winner in stoppage time. Deeney argued that Arsenal cannot handle the physicality of a team that takes the fight to them. Ignoring for a moment the shambolic performance by match ref Neil Swarbrick, his point at times has merit. Arsenal have lacked the killer instinct over the last several seasons, that sense of wanting to put the opposition away for good with more goals and a lockdown defence after getting them on their heels.
However, since the Gunners’ humiliation at Vicarage Rd, they have responded with two straight wins, including Tuesday’s comeback win over Norwich City. In fact, the Gunners got to inflict a little last minute pain of their own, needing extra time but eventually snatching the victory away from Norwich, who had outplayed the Gunners for large stretches of the match and easily bested their intensity until over 80 minutes had ticked off. The Gunners were able to answer Norwich’s physicality with some of their own and eventually earned the win in extra time.
A Capable Deputy’s Deputy
One of the truly useful aspects of the Carabao Cup’s relative lack of prestige is its function, for many big clubs, as an initial competitive proving ground for young, emergent players. On Tuesday, Arsenal fans got treated to the rare sight of Matt Macey in goal for their club. The 23 year old from Bath has been given spot-start duty as third choice goalkeeper this season after Emiliano Martinez’ summer loan to La Liga side Getafe, pursuing the next step in his career. Arsene Wenger elected to hand the start to Macey over the struggling David Ospina, who had an apparent groin injury picked up at some point between his appearance in World Cup Qualifying and Arsenal’s match with Red Star Belgrade last week. While certainly possible, a prevailing theory is that Ospina is on one of Wenger’s prescribed “mental holidays”, in which a player in the midst of a crisis of confidence seems to disappear from view for a time while he rebuilds his psyche (think Rob Holding last season).
At 6’6, Macey has ideal size for the position, but he equally impressed with his quick feet and apparent command of the box against Norwich. The only goal he conceded was a beautifully executed chip, which had resulted from the Arsenal defence hanging their young keeper out to dry, giving him little chance in a 1 on 1 situation after yet another turnover by a Gunner in their own end. Arsene Wenger gave a glowing review of Macey before the match, claiming he has the size and mentality to seize his opportunity, and he did not disappoint. If anything, the mere presence of his towering frame inspires more confidence than that of Ospina, who relies far more on athleticism and reflexes to make his stunning saves, but few goalkeepers in the world can create a stressful situation out of a routine one as easily as the Columbian. Perhaps with such a solid (if, admittedly, a bit quiet) performance under his belt and the shaky confidence of Ospina at current, Wenger could find cause to give Macey more opportunities this season.
Showing Up For The End
The headlines will almost certainly be positive for the Gunners after their extra time victory over Norwich, but the difficult truth remains that Arsenal allowed themselves to be in that position in the first place due to an utter lack of desire and final product for almost the entire match. Norwich obviously stuck to the blue print that had been very publicly established by Watford, attempting to take the physicality straight to the Gunners. While this tactic worked for the Hornets, Tuesday’s mixture of squad players and youth did not succumb to Norwich’s aggression. Instead, the Gunners brought out a little physicality of their own, and eventually discovered their final product just in time to equalise before the final whistle.
The club and manager Arsene Wenger will obviously take the victory, but why did it take so long for the group of players on the pitch to start taking the match seriously? It might work against sides from the Championship and smaller clubs in the Europa League, but the Gunners cannot afford to keep leaving it late to pull out victories. Last season saw Olivier Giroud go from one of the club’s most disliked starters to its absolutely adored super sub, as he made a habit out of coming on late to power the team to victory with last minute goals, but as a winning formula, it is not a sustainable way to win consistently. The Gunners have certainly developed a penchant for the dramatic victory over the last couple seasons, but fans will be wondering when their team will put in a complete 90 minutes without lapses in intensity or concentration.
After advancing to the Quarter Finals of the Carabao Cup, Arsenal will now turn their attention back towards the Premier League, where they will next face Swansea City at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday before hosting Red Star Belgrade midweek. Arsenal will then face their toughest challenge of the season as the go on the road to battle Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. While there is a chance that some of the injured players could be back in contention for the visit to the league leaders, it is likely that some second choice players will be forced to fill in against the Citizens. The mini injury crisis currently affecting the club could not have come at a worse time for the Gunners, who will need every able hand they can get against Pep Guardiola’s red hot City side. However, if the Gunners are able to contain Pep’s men, it could spell a massive confidence boost for the players, who will return from the next international break with the North London Derby next on the schedule.