FA Cup: Gunners rest key players in 3-1 win over Sunderland

Arsenal advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup despite resting five regular starters in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Sunderland. Mertesacker, Flamini and Ozil were not even in the squad while Ramsey and Monreal sat on the bench. The manager did not take any gamble with Sanchez, leaving the Chile striker out of the squad. Cech should have been given the day off, but Ospina’s groin injury during the warm-up forced Wenger to play the Czech goalkeeper.

FA Cup 3rd round

Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

I thought it made sense to keep Paulista sharp by handing him a start. Debuchy should have been in the starting lineup too, but the possibility of a loan might have deterred the manager. France hosts the European Championship this summer and Debuchy made no bones about his desire to get more playing time and become the first choice at rightback for the France team. The Arsenal side looked very attack-minded with Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi in midfield, Campbell and Walcott on the wings, and Giroud up front. I would have opted for a more conservative midfield to rest Giroud and start Arteta.

The Gunners dominated Sunderland, enjoying 63% of ball possession and having 13 shots on target to just 3 for the visitors. The midfield was my main concern before the game since Chambers (20), Oxlade-Chamberlain (22) and Iwobi (19) are much younger than Cattermole (27), Toivonen (29) and Lens (28). But Iwobi really produced an eye-catching performance with 4 shot assists, 3 of 4 shots on target, and a passing accuracy of 95.8% (the best percentage among the midfielders).

Iwobi’s reading of the game

What I like about Iwobi is his movement, his close control and his reading of the game. Now he still needs to improve his fitness and his work-rate if he wants to become a starter in league games. Iwobi made no interception, won only 27.3% of his duels and lost the only tackle he made. Basically, he needs to toughen up. I believe Iwobi is ready for the level of the Premier League, but not yet for its physical side.

Iwobi dribbled past three Black Cats in the 20th minute to fire an angled strike that Coates deflected out. Five minutes later, Iwobi created the equalizer by finding Walcott on the left wing. Walcott cut the ball back for Campbell, who sent a first-time effort into the bottom corner. The same trio nearly added another goal in the 54th. Iwobi slipped a through ball to Campbell, who made a pass to Walcott with the outside of his left boot but Yedlin cleared the danger.

The Ox was our most senior midfielder on Saturday. Wenger gave him the playmaking duties but the Ox struggled to dictate the tempo as our passing game in the first half was too slow to destabilize Sunderland. The England international also showed his bad habit of forcing plays, attempting difficult passes and firing a speculative shot from 30 yards in the 29th when both Giroud and Walcott were in a better position.

The Ox struggling with confidence

Somehow, the Ox played more naturally in the second half, letting the situation dictate his move. He hit the post with a curling shot from the edge of the box in the 57th. Walcott pounced on the rebound but his half-volley sailed wide. The Ox also created the last goal by releasing Bellerin down the right flank in the 75th. In stoppage time, the Ox led a counterattack and crossed for Reine-Adelaide, who controlled the ball and was denied by Pickford while a first-time effort was the better option. You can feel that a goal would lift the Ox’s confidence. He vented his frustration with a cheap foul on M’Vila in the 63rd, shoving the Sunderland substitute from behind.

After making a good impression against Bournemouth two weeks ago, Chambers was careless quite a few times against Sunderland. I believe Chambers is a decent option in midfield against the weak teams but a liability against the good ones. His lost duel in the third minute led to a Sunderland counterattack and a long-range strike from Lens that missed the target. Chambers was then outmuscled by Lens inside the Arsenal area in the 24th but the goal attempt of the Dutch midfielder was blocked. Koscielny had to recover the ball with a tackle in the 39th after Lens dispossessed Chambers again. Fans must certainly hope that Flamini is fit for the next few games because neither Chambers nor Arteta seems an attractive option.

Of our three forwards, Campbell delivered the best performance, scoring the equalizer and having a hand in Ramsey’s goal in the 72nd. Bellerin played a one-two with Campbell before outpacing Graham to make a low cross that Ramsey converted for a 2-1 lead. Ramsey replaced Iwobi in the 66th and made the difference with one of his deep runs which are difficult to track for any defense. Campbell could have also scored in the 61st. He played a one-two with Walcott and had his close-range shot saved by Pickford. The Costa Rica forward finished the game with 5 shot assists and 2 of 4 shots on target. Campbell has average pace and dribbling skills but his reading of the game has definitely helped the team this season.

Giroud’s understanding with the fullbacks

Walcott’s performance on the left wing proved a mixed bag. On the one hand, he gets the opportunity to cut inside and shoot with his right foot. But on the other, he does not provide as much ammunition to Giroud as when he’s on the right wing. Walcott made the assist for the equalizer and should have scored at least a goal. Pickford parried Walcott’s bouncing drive in the 27th. Walcott then missed the target with a half-volley in the 57th and could only muster a tame shot straight at Pickford from Gibbs’ low cross in the 70th. I don’t blame Walcott for not finding the net with that half-volley because he had to react quickly but I thought he should have been able to guide the ball toward the corner with his last chance. Walcott also showed a bit of naivety in his defensive work when Yedlin cut inside him in the 59th. Instead of diving in, Walcott should have protected the inside route and forced Yedlin to stay along the touchline.

As the Gunners played with two inverted wingers on Saturday, Giroud had to rely on the fullbacks for service. Giroud has developed a good understanding with Gibbs over the past few years. Giroud picked out Gibbs in the ninth minute but Pickford palmed away the angled effort from the Arsenal leftback. Gibbs then led a counterattack in the 68th but Giroud couldn’t make contact with his low cross. Giroud finally connected with a cross from Gibbs in the 84th only to have his header tipped over the bar by Pickford.

Bellerin’s stellar performance

Giroud was rewarded for his efforts in the 75th when Bellerin charged down the right flank to make a pinpoint cross through Van Aanholt’s legs. The French striker made a run at the far post to tap the offering home. I felt Giroud should have been awarded a penalty in the 78th. He took a pass from Walcott and had his shooting leg clipped by Yedlin just before pulling the trigger. It was a foul similar to the one made by Puyol on Fabregas in the Champions League six years ago. In my eyes, that was definitely a spot kick and a red card for killing a scoring chance.

The referee made another bad call in the 64th, giving Sunderland a free kick for a handball from Iwobi, who didn’t have time to get his arm out of the way. O’Shea made a similar handball a few minutes earlier but the referee didn’t blow the whistle. You know the referee is doing a poor job when there is no consistency in his officiating. In the end, those bad calls did not prevent the Gunners from qualifying for the next round.

At the back, Bellerin produced a stellar performance. The Spanish rightback made two assists, won 2 of 3 tackles and 87.5% of his duels (the best percentage among the starters). Paulista was brilliant against Bournemouth but lost a couple of key duels against Sunderland. Fletcher outmuscled Paulista to head Yedlin’s cross against the bar in the 59th. That was the turning point of the game. It could have been a different story if the Black Cats had taken a 2-1 lead. In stoppage time, Paulista received a yellow card for a poorly timed challenge on Watmore on the edge of the box. Cech saved Van Aanholt’s subsequent free kick.

Can Arsenal become a powerhouse again?

Among the defenders, Koscielny proved a disappointment. Pundits currently mention him as the best centerback in the league, but every once in a while Koscielny shows his dodgy decision-making. Gibbs dispossessed Watmore in the 17th and slipped the ball to Koscielny, who tried to dribble past Lens instead of clearing the ball. Lens won the ball back and fired a powerful strike past Cech to open the scoring. Koscielny then poorly marked Graham on a counterattack in the 78th. Lens fed Graham, who was denied by Cech.

The Gunners have managed to keep their confidence high with that victory while resting some key players ahead of tough trips to Liverpool on Wednesday and Stoke next Sunday. Winning the FA Cup for a third straight season would be a fantastic achievement but there’s no comparison with what a Premier League title would mean. We haven’t won the league since 2004. A league title would speak volumes about Arsenal’s new status as a powerhouse.