Islington Gazette journalist and Arsenal author Layth Yousif gives us the lowdown on the Gunners ahead of Southampton's EFL Cup quarter-final tie at Emirates Stadium.
Can you sum up Arsenal’s season so far and the mood at the club?
The mood is of quiet expectation, if they keep ticking over – or the calm before the storm, if wthey blow up again. Nothing is decided in November of course, but you can throw your chances away in a number of competitions. Thankfully, despite the club’s traditional November wobbles that hasn’t happened – yet. With tricky games away to West Ham, Everton and Manchester City in the next three weeks, not to mention the game at Basle which could still prove pivotal, the fact remains if the club are still ticking over come the New Year it may be time to upgrade expectations.
However, there is still the feeling the team is only ever three or four games away from a crisis – and if they lose against Saints in the League Cup, finish second in the Champions League ahead of their annual Round of 16 exit, and lose the three away games I’ve mentioned then the mood will change again, as they could be left with only the FA Cup as a realistic trophy – again – come early January.
That said, if they win on Wednesday, somehow finish top of the group and get a relatively ‘easy’ draw in the Champions League, beat a disappointing West Ham, a lacklustre Everton side led by your former manager Ronald Koeman, and avoid defeat against Pep Guardiola’s good but not brilliant side, then the outlook will be very different. As ever, the truth is in between. Personally, I would love them to challenge for the League Cup, not least because it would give Arsène Wenger the full set of English trophies.
How have the team been performing of late?
November is always a sticky month for Arsenal. A draw against Spurs, which should have been a victory but could have easily ended in defeat, was fair enough. Ditto a point at Old Trafford, despite not playing well. Salvaging a point in a topsy-turvy 2-2 draw against PSG may see Wenger’s men ultimately have to settle for second in their Champions League group, but with Real Madrid and possibly Bayern Munich also potentially finishing as runner-ups it could be worse.
With the month ending with a 3-1 win over your South Coast neighbours, Bournemouth, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s been a far better November than normal – and one which sees the club nicely nestled in the chasing pack. So you could argue the results have been fair to good – certainly when you throw in an 18-game unbeaten streak – and the fact their north London rivals presented them with ‘Invincibles Day’ for 2016/17 as they lost their unbeaten league record, meaning the superb 2003/04 undefeated record will last for another season at least.
However, performances have been patchy. I think they are missing the unbridled pace, attacking threat and defensive capabilities of Hector Bellerin, not to mention the creativity of Santi Cazorla in his position as one of the two defensive shields after his influential start to the season. And it has been reflected in less-than stellar performances. As we head into December I suppose it depends whether you are a glass-half full or half-empty Arsenal watcher. The plus side is that the team are avoiding defeats, including frustrating Wenger’s nemesis Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford – which as a fan and a journalist who covers Arsenal home and away – was hugely satisfying. The negative is that the team is not playing well nor picking up as many wins as many would like.
How are Arsenal viewing the EFL Cup this season?
I had the pleasure of watching Arsenal under 18s play in a friendly match at Hitchin Town the other week, and it was easy to picture a handful of the gilded youngsters making the step up over the next couple of years to the verge of the first team – certainly in terms of League Cup appearances. However, as Gunners legend Pat Rice told me when I interviewed him before the game, it was still too early to tell whether any of them would have a career as an Arsenal first teamer. And so it is with the youngsters who may feature at the Emirates.
I covered the 4-0 away win at an atmospheric City Ground when the Gunners weathered the first 20 minutes then showed their class. Lucas Perez had a good game that night and grew in strength and confidence as the game wore on, scoring two goals in the rout – so it is a shame he’s not fit enough to play.
It will be good to see Chuba Akpom make an appearance, likewise Jeff Reine-Adelaide. I’m looking forward to seeing Emiliano Martinez in goal – days after he signed a long-term deal with the words of Wenger ringing in his ears that he fully expects him to be the club’s future keeper in the long term. I was honoured that the great Henry Winter asked me before the post-match press conference at Forest what I thought Ashley Maitland-Niles best position was. He is a serious contender for the first team if he keeps up his rate of progress. I answered that he’s best on the right - even if his tenacity, technique and creativity, allied with his ball-winning skills could easily see him used in the middle. Such is his versatility he has also been used at right back for the club – but if he does play on Wednesday keep an eye on this lad. He will have a future in professional football, even if ultimately he can’t make one at Arsenal.
Which players would you say might prove key for Arsenal on Wednesday?
I want to see Granit Xhaka play. Reading between the lines, it appears he is taking time to settle at the club. So, for me, the more games he plays the better. I don’t actually think he has a problem with his temperament, I just think he is a very combative player who is still adjusting to what he can – and can’t – get away with in the Premier League.
I’d actually like to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud play some part in the game. After all, it is the fifth round of a competition Wenger has never won. Keep an eye out for Chris Willock and Gideon Zelalem at some stage too. Much as I’d love to see Alexis Sanchez play to hopefully guide Arsenal to the semi-finals, it won’t happen, as he is dangerously near the red zone.
What sort of a game are you expecting?
With Saints beating Palace 2-0 in the third round and an obdurate 1-0 against Sunderland in the fourth with a cracking Soufiane Boufal strike, and the way Claude Puel is gradually shaping his ethos on the club, it will be a tough, tight game – even if he plays five academy graduates as he did against the Mackems. After all, it’s the world-renowned Southampton academy we’re talking about. And I haven’t forgotten the 2-1 third round defeat the other year, after Tadić and Clyne’s cracking goals. Clyne may have gone, but Tadić is a player I really rate. Whether he plays is a different matter though.