Arsenal eased into the fourth round of the FA Cup by comfortably dispatching Blackpool at Bloomfield Road. A brace from youngster Joe Willock and a strike from Alex Iwobi helped Unai Emery‘s Arsenal take a 3-0 victory. Arsenal left plenty of first-team regulars at home and traveled with a mix of youth and a few players from the senior team.
While Blackpool put up a spirited performance, they were outclassed on the occasion. Arsenal were dominant throughout the game, enjoying 58% of the possession. The scoreline flattered the visitors to a certain extent with Blackpool wasting a couple of opportunities that they should have taken. In the end, the home side’s poor defensive organisation allowed Arsenal to leave with a win and a clean sheet.
Youngsters impress for Arsenal
Arsenal’s Hale End graduates were particularly impressive in the win. Joe Willock started as part of the midfield trio and grabbed a brace. The English midfielder looked comfortable playing in an advanced midfield role. As his WhoScored rating of 9.14 reflected, the Englishman was Arsenal’s best player. With clinical precision, his two shots on target brought him two goals. Add his 48 touches of the ball and an 80% pass completion, it was a great all-round performance from the midfielder.
As his heat-map indicates, Willock covered a lot of ground over the 90 minutes. He operated as a number eight as opposed to the regista or deep-lying role he has occupied in the past. For his first goal, the midfielder was on hand to head the ball into an empty net after Aaron Ramsey’s free kick came off the post.
His second was thanks to his anticipation. Carl Jenkinson fizzed in a cross which was flicked on by Eddie Nketiah and tapped-in by Willock at the far post. Both the goals indicate that the youngster has been training to position himself between the lines, make intelligent runs into the box and score more goals.
Alex Iwobi enjoyed a good game as he was tasked with being Arsenal’s creative force. Iwobi started on the left side of the attacking trio. He enjoyed the freedom and space to float into midfield at will. Iwobi’s understanding with Kolasinac on the left flank has developed into an important creative outlet for Arsenal.
Blackpool’s poor marking and lack of defensive support meant that Iwobi was dominant in the final third. Blackpool’s full-backs were very involved in the home side’s attacking play, leaving Kolasinac and Iwobi able to freely exchange passes in the final third on the left wing.
Iwobi’s improvement under Emery has been markedly visible, although the Nigerian needs more end product if he is to cement his place as a regular starter. Nevertheless, he is enjoying a spell of good form and stepped up in the absence of creativity from midfield.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has enjoyed an extended run thanks to his versatility. Maitland-Niles, since his debut, has played on either flank as a full-back, wing-back, in central midfield and on either wing. To his credit, he usually never puts a foot wrong and can be trusted to put in a solid performance.
While traditionally a winger, Maitland-Niles’ versatility is especially important for Arsenal, given the trend of injuries. Against Blackpool, the 21-year-old showed his attacking flair, playing with freedom on the right wing. Similar to Iwobi on the left flank, Blackpool barely pressed or closed down Maitland-Niles. This enabled him to drift into the middle, and use Jenkinson for the overlap.
The above image illustrates how the Englishman was heavily involved in Arsenal’s chance creation by drifting inside. This enabled Jenkinson (on the right touchline) to frequently overlap and also open up the opportunity to cross the ball into the box.
A real benefit for Maitland-Niles’ development would be if he were settled in a more specific role. As Arsenal experienced with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, operating in too many roles can stagnate development.
Arsenal’s defensive issues
Arsenal have been woeful defensively this season. Emery’s side still leak too many goals for a side with ambitions of finishing in the top four. However, the majority of Arsenal’s defensive issues arise from individual mistakes rather than a poor collective effort. In the victory over Blackpool, these frailties were evident. A largely makeshift defense, Arsenal’s defenders looked nervous whenever Blackpool broke forward or found space on the overlap.
Stephan Lichtsteiner was suspect in allowing the opposition yards of space on Arsenal’s right flank. On one occasion he failed to close down the opposition forward, forcing a save from Cech. The Swiss veteran is showing his age with every passing game, and even the much-maligned Jenkinson seems to be a more reliable option than him. Arsenal were also lucky that Blackpool failed to put away their chances. The game could have easily seen the hosts score a few goals as well.
A noticeable issue with Arsenal’s defense is the poor spatial awareness that their defenders seem to have. Lichtsteiner frequently overrates his ability to keep up with much younger and pacier players, Mustafi and Sokratis are both rash diving into tackles and Kolasinac is far too attack-minded to be relied upon to defend. Therefore whenever there is a turn of possession, Arsenal always seem exposed without someone like Torreira to win it back.
Arsenal are very imbalanced. They also seem unclear of Emery’s exact philosophy. While it is too early to judge, they certainly have been over-performing up till this point. Defensive recruitment should be the priority for Arsenal in the coming transfer windows.
Arsenal left Blackpool with a comfortable win. While a win is always positive, the game barely tested Emery’s side. The youngsters were solid and showed maturity to slot well into the side. Joe Willock and Alex Iwobi were the best players on the night. Arsenal, however, are in desperate need of defensive reinforcements. With games against Manchester City and Chelsea on the horizon, Arsenal and Emery need to plug the porous defence in any way they can if they are to qualify for the Champions League.
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