Perez opened his Arsenal account by scoring twice in the 4-0 rout of Nottingham Forest in the third round of the League Cup on Tuesday. What made the result even more sweet after last year’s shambolic performance against Sheffield Wednesday is that those who started in the 4-1 win over Hull on Saturday were left out of the squad.
- The League Cup is the least important competition for the big clubs
The Premier League has become so competitive and the Champions League burns so much energy that the top English clubs can no longer take the risk of fielding their best players in the League Cup.
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To compensate for the relative inexperience of Martinez, Holding, Maitland-Niles, Reine-Adelaide and Akpom, the Arsenal manager also relied on four internationals (Gibbs, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Xhaka and Elneny) and two players familiar with top-level football (Paulista and Perez). Chelsea adopted a similar approach against Leicester by heavily rotating. Courtois, Ivanovic, Kante, Oscar, and Willian were rested while Hazard and Costa only came off the bench in the second half.
- Only Xhaka and Perez are close to the regular starters’ level
Xhaka opened the scoring in the 23rd minute with a long-range strike into the top corner similar to the goal he netted against Hull on Saturday. At least the Swiss international is giving Wenger some food for thought for the upcoming game against Chelsea.
Perez didn’t show much in his first Arsenal start against Southampton. It’s true that he got no decent service that day. Perez finally made a good impression in his second start by scoring two goals and making an assist.
The Spanish striker was pretty quiet in the first half. He won a ball in the 12th to lead a counterattack but his cross was intercepted. Perez became more confident in the second half. He first tested Stojkovic with a curling free kick in the 50th. Then he slipped a through ball to Akpom, who was shoved from behind by Mancienne in the 59th. Perez converted the subsequent penalty to make it 2-0. Stojkovic guessed right, but Perez’s spot kick had enough power to beat the Forest goalkeeper. If Perez were a regular starter, there’s no doubt he would be ahead of Sanchez and Ozil on the list of penalty takers.
Perez has been compared to Vardy for his pace and work-rate. The Spaniard showed that gritty part of his game in the 71st when Mancienne intercepted a pass from Akpom. Perez dispossessed Mancienne, dribbled past Stojkovic and held off a defender to slot into an empty net for a 3-0 lead. He could have notched a hat trick but sent his first-time effort straight at Stojkovic in the 74th. In stoppage time, Perez played Oxlade-Chamberlain in for the fourth goal.
I believe Perez would definitely be a better centerforward than Sanchez. His link-up play is good and he feels more comfortable than Sanchez playing back to goal. The only question mark is the level of understanding Perez has been able to strike in training with Ozil, Walcott, Sanchez, Cazorla and the other regular starters.
- Can the Ox finally have that breakthrough season?
At 23, the Ox still has a bit of time to prove himself. But if he can’t get more goals and assists in his sixth Premier League season, the staff will have to analyze why his development has stalled. On Tuesday, Wenger played the Ox as a No. 10. Four years ago, the Ox shone in that role against AC Milan in the Champions League. Surprisingly, the Ox struggled to have an impact against Forest. Reine-Adelaide played on the right wing but seemed more creative than the Ox when drifting inside.
The Ox sent a corner straight into touch in the 20th and wasted a free kick easily cleared by Bendtner in the 76th. It’s only when the manager replaced Reine-Adelaide and Akpom with Zelalem and Willock in the 82nd that the Ox performed at a good level. Back on the right wing, the Ox had a low strike saved by Stojkovic in the 86th. Three minutes later, the Ox set up Perez for a shot blocked by the Forest defense. In stoppage time, the Ox took a pass from Perez to beat Stojkovic with a low finish.
- Speeding up the development of Holding and Reine-Adelaide
Holding had a good game but he needs to get rid of lapses of concentration. He gave away the ball with a poor first touch in the ninth minute. Kasami pounced on the offering but missed the target. There’s not much Holding could have done about his yellow card in the 37th. Elneny put him in a tough spot with a risky back pass and Holding ended up fouling Kasami with a studs-up challenge. The next logical step for Holding’s development would be to loan him out to a Premier League side in January, assuming Mertesacker recovers from his knee injury by then.
Reine-Adelaide was frustrating to watch in the pre-season friendlies because he took too many touches and often lost possession. On Tuesday, the teenager released the ball more quickly and cut his turnover rate. His efficiency in the final third is still a weakness but at least he’s making a step in the right direction. Reine-Adelaide slipped a through ball to Akpom, who was denied by Stojkovic in the 13th. On the stroke of halftime, the Frenchman controlled a high pass from Akpom only to shoot wide of the far post. The manager might contemplate loaning him out to a Championship side in January.
- What does the manager see in Akpom and Maitland-Niles?
Perez’s presence up front led Wenger to play Akpom on the left wing. Akpom was involved in the second and third goals. He also diverted a pass from Xhaka into the path of Perez, whose shot deflected off a defender in the 79th. However, I’m not sure Akpom has any future as a winger. He doesn’t seem to have great crossing or dribbling skills and he had a tendency to slow down play in the first half. His work-rate is still an issue. Pereira was able to make a couple of dangerous runs because Akpom didn’t track him. Akpom was also dispossessed by the Forest fullback in the 56th. My guess is that centerforward is the most suited position for Akpom. A loan to a Championship side would be the most likely scenario since Giroud, Sanchez and Perez are ahead of him in the pecking order.
Maitland-Niles has mostly played as a midfielder in his short Arsenal career. The manager converted him into a fullback for the Forest game. That’s how Bellerin redefined his career and enjoyed a breakthrough in the first team. Obviously, there’s still a long way to go for Maitland-Niles. He made a couple of teasing crosses and was on the wrong side of Osborn for Forest’s best chance in the 81st. I guess he’ll stay at the academy this season to continue his development.
- No regrets about Bendtner and Lansbury
Bendtner has decent stats with the Denmark team but he has never really been convincing at club level. His spells at Juventus and Wolfsburg show that Wenger was right to let him go. He received a yellow card in the 16th for a late tackle on Xhaka and his only shot on target was a tame low drive at the end of the first half.
Lansbury was the typical academy player with great work-rate but limited talents. He has enjoyed a decent career at Nottingham Forest since his departure from Arsenal. He managed to make three nasty fouls on Tuesday before getting booked in the 66th for a relatively benign challenge on Perez. Lansbury and Bendtner are a reminder that not every academy prospect makes the step up.