The Carabao Cup is a competition I don’t get excited by even at the best of times (not helped by the fact I was there in person for that fateful match at Wembley in 2011). It’s bad enough that you get a new sponsor every few seasons that most people have never heard of but with stadiums still empty and fans’ return on October 1st cancelled, it was even more soulless than usual.
Both teams were also far more preoccupied with their respective looming league ties, so it was only natural to see a healthy smattering of youth, including 5 Hale End-ers.
The start was bright enough, with Reiss Nelson forcing Ward into a good save. It was the kind of gumption and decisiveness that’s so far set apart the likes of Saka and Martinelli from the rest. I’ve no doubt Nelson has the ability in his arsenal, especially after some of his performances on-loan in the Bundesliga, but with a growing pecking order, it was an opportunity to make a case for staying with the team this season. Ultimately, it was mostly downhill from there despite some effective pressing which is becoming a hallmark of the team under Arteta.
As the first team still struggles to create from midfield in most games, it was hardly surprising that a midfield duo of Willock and Elneny didn’t quite have it in them to open Leicester up. I can never fault their work rate but I’d like to see a loan and a departure respectively.
I’m fond of Willock stretching teams, something he’s often brought on to do in the dying stages but with consistency in the final third still an issue, I can’t help but feel now is the ideal time for a loan. At the same time, Elneny is a squad player at best from a largely bygone squad and while Arteta has quick to praise him publicly, he’ll be all too aware of his limitations. It just so happens that we’re currently dealing with a pariahed Matteo Guendouzi and a Lucas Torreira with his heart seemingly set on joining the closest thing to the Uruguayan national team in Simeone’s Atlético. That leaves Ainsley and Callum Chambers to deputise in midfield if required, which obviously isn’t going to happen. Even with the possibility of a certain Atlético player opting for his sleeves to be white instead of his stripes…
I don’t think much needs to be said about the nature of our first goal. It’s classic Pépé in the final third in many ways – when he’s given the time and space to actually run at people. The mazy runs and dropped shoulders clearly did a number on Leicester though, because how the ball still ended up in the back of the net is beyond me. It was tenacious stuff at least, and given Willian’s arrival adding a layer of confusion to his own position in the squad, it was important for him to get something done.
Given his performance at Anfield last year, which for me was an early indication of just how good he can be given the trouble he caused Van Dijk, I’d like to see him given the chance again with Willian deployed elsewhere. It’s always interesting when you have an abundance of quality in some positions and in some ways, the Carabao Cup is a perfect opportunity for Arteta to gauge players on the fringes. If Pépé’s second season at Lille is anything to go by, this is the year he should be hitting the ground running but the competition will do him good.
The second came from an unlikely but welcome source in Hector Bellerín, sporting his best 80s shorts throwback while tipping his hat to Tierney. He’s always been one for flair and I’m glad to see it surging back into his game with a move we used to see far more regularly. It’s only natural given the type of injury he suffered but I’m glad it’s not had any lasting effects. It wasn’t just the pace that made the goal (which has thankfully come back) but the desire to actually beat the man (unlike his left footed counterpart) with some brilliant footwork before turning the next one inside out and picking out Eddie.
And unlike some of Eddie’s goals that are harder to miss than score – that being a credit to his positioning – he scored because he wanted it more. It might also be the reason he was screaming at Pépé for the first but someone’s clearly lit a fire under him to succeed and he seems to have gained something this season. Can’t put my finger on it yet but he’s looking sharp, he’s hungry and he’s scoring and that’s exactly what you want in a “backup” striker just beginning to learn the trade.
It was another clean sheet and it’s becoming mostly habitual, which is a step in the right direction. It’s night and day what Arteta’s done to our defensive setup already and that’s before our two defensive signings have been properly integrated. A back four of a properly seasoned Gabriel and Saliba flanked by Tierney and Bellerín is some prospect.
Next up is Liverpool and the first real test of the season. It would be nice to quash the Invincibles narrative early this season because leaving it to Watford was cutting it a bit fine. It’ll also make Miguel Delaney lose his marbles, which is weeks of entertainment.