Given Arsenal’s last League Cup tie with Reading produced 12 goals, a comeback from 4-0 down and even two goals for Marouane Chamakh, there was no way Arsenal’s 4th round EFL Cup tie against the Royals on Tuesday was likely to go in a similar way. Arsenal did field the same goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, who played in that crazy game four years ago, but he showed how he’s improved in that time with an assured display to keep a clean sheet.
But most of the action, unsurprisingly, was at the other end as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a brace to send the Gunners into the quarter-finals. Arsenal could, and should, have had more, but overall it was a satisfying night for Arsene Wenger as his rotated team got the job done, and players returning from injury got much-needed competitive minutes on the pitch.
The two goals take Oxlade-Chamberlain to five for the season, already his most prolific in his Arsenal career, and was his second and third goals in a week after netting against Ludogorets in the Champions League. In some ways, what is encouraging is that it still feels like there is a lot of room for improvement in his game, even with his increasing productivity in front of goal. There are still plenty of moments in matches where he makes the wrong decision or holds onto the ball for too long, and if he can sharpen up that area of his game, there’s no reason why, having already got to five goals, he can’t go on and score 10 or even 15 this season if he can break into the starting XI regularly.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s first goal owed a lot to his growing confidence as he received the ball just outside the box after a kamikaze short goal-kick from Ali Al-Habsi in the Reading goal. The Ox sized up the defender in front of him, jinked a little bit and fired across the goalkeeper perfectly into the far corner. Rather than dithering over the options he had available to him, he had a clear idea of what to do when he got control of the ball and executed it superbly.
The goal came at a good time as Arsenal had dominated the match in the first half, so it settled any nerves down in a team that understandably lacked a bit of fluency at times because of the number of changes made, but still was comfortably on top in the game.
The second goal of the evening came in the 78th minute and avoided any tension in the final knockings of the match. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s finish from the edge of the box was well struck and would have required a very good save to stop it, but Al-Habsi was left stranded as the ball deflected off a defender and flew into the net. That Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to get a shot off owed a lot to the work of Rob Holding to dribble to the by-line after a deep corner, and of Olivier Giroud to lay the ball off to the winger when he was in space on the edge of the box.
While the goals of Oxlade-Chamberlain were big positives from the evening for Arsene Wenger, the return of Olivier Giroud was also most welcome. Whatever you read into the slightly mysterious toe injury Giroud had, he’s definitely been missed in certain games as a different option up front. In general, the front four has operated brilliantly this season, but when things haven’t been going well, it would have been great to have the Frenchman available to mix things up. In his 25-minute cameo, Giroud immediately challenged the centre-backs and would have scored with a good header from a free-kick but for an excellent stop from Al-Habsi. He offers something completely different to anyone else in the squad, so it’s great to see him back.
The other returning player was Carl Jenkinson. When he went on loan to West Ham two years ago, and then again last season, I thought we’d never get to see him play for Arsenal again. But with Mathieu Debuchy just disappearing off the face of the earth, and Jenkinson back from a serious knee injury, he was back in the side on Tuesday. He might not be the most technically gifted player, but Arsenal could do a lot worse than him as the back-up right-back. For fans, it really feels like we’ve got a representative on the pitch when Jenkinson plays as he is living the dream for all of us that had Arsenal wallpaper and posters of the team on our walls growing up. For someone who hasn’t played a competitive game for nine months, and hasn’t played for the club since May 2014, he put in a good showing. Bellerin can’t play every game and I’d have no concerns about Jenkinson stepping in if required.
For the youngsters who made appearances, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Rheine-Adelaide were both good in possession and didn’t look out of place in the game. It will be interesting to see what the dynamic is like in the main Premier League starting XI is by the time the quarter-final with Southampton comes around at the end of November. It’ll come after a tougher run of fixtures including Spurs, Manchester United and PSG, so that will likely dictate if Wenger uses any of the more experienced players to try and get to the last four. If a similar line-up does play in the quarter-final, they’ll have a good chance of going through because the fringe and young players are feeding off the confidence that is building around the club at the moment, and they’ll be keen to keep this EFL Cup run going after scoring six and conceding none in the two games so far.