The League Cup used to be a joy for Arsenal fans. It was a night off from the pressure and tension of the Premier League where the focus shifted to the raft of youth prospects bristling for a chance in the first team. Carlos Vela, Fran Merida and Cesc Fabregas all took their first steps here with differing levels of success.
Times have changed now though. With Wenger’s youth experiment now a distant failure, the League Cup offers a chance to give his grumbling reserves a run-out. Arsenal’s second string were rescued on Tuesday night when Eddie Nketiah scored twice to secure a 2-1 victory over Norwich in extra time.
For all the headlines, though, real concerns remain about a side which, even with the presence of Mohamed Elneny, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud, struggled to overcome a team sitting outside the Championship play-off places.
Arsene Wenger will be looking for an improved display against Paul Clement’s Swansea on Saturday.The visitors had their own nightmare in mid-week: two Jesse Lingard goals consigning them to a whimpering defeat against Manchester United. With nine games gone, they sit level on points with Everton in 18th.
With a win looking vital for both sides, here are three battles that could decide the result.
Alexis Sánchez vs Alfie Mawson
It’s been a difficult few weeks for Alexis Sánchez. After his country were dumped out of the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying places, the Chilean has struggled badly for form, looking visibly angry with teammates before scoring at Goodison Park last Sunday. With just over six months to go on his contract, he increasingly looks set for a move away. However, he remains Arsenal’s most talented player. If he’s in the mood, Swansea could have a very long day.
Alfie Mawson has already been in the headlines this week, becoming the first British player to join Juan Mata’s Common Goal Initiative alongside Bournemouth’s Charlie Daniels.
Last year he was less charitable, offering one of the brighter spots in a season of discontent in South Wales. This season has been more of a struggle with the Englishman not even in Swansea’s top ten for tackles and interceptions. He must rediscover some of his form if Swansea are to get anything from their trip to London.
Sead Kolasinac vs Kyle Naughton
In his autobiography, former Irish rugby star Paul O’Connell speaks of the moment where his pack knows they will win a game. It’s not always quantifiable but it’s always perceptible: a second where the opponent tackles a little less intensely or runs more slowly.
Football is no different. For years now, Arsenal have lacked a individual capable of creating those moments from nothing, a flash of inspiration that can provide a psychological advantage when the chips are down. Enter Sead Kolasinac.
The Bosnian isn’t especially enterprising but he is so consistent that a good performance is almost a given. In a team of neurotic playmakers, he is reassuringly dependable. However, it is his sheer physicality that has brought most to the team with his broad-shouldered forays adding muscle to the Arsenal attack.
At the weekend, Kyle Naughton will have his hands full. When he signed alongside Kyle Walker in a double transfer from Sheffield United in 2009, Tottenham thought they had found a solution for both wing-back positions. They were half-right.
Aged 28 and with three loan spells under his belt, Naughton departed North London in 2015 and made Swansea’s right-back spot his own, impressing with several consistent performances. Getting past both Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal, however, is a different story.
Wilfred Bony vs Laurent Koscielny
Wilfred Bony is a brave man.After making just 36 appearances in his three years in Manchester, the Ivorian returned to Wales this summer aiming to replace both Fernando Llorente and Gylfi Sigurdsson.
As of yet, it hasn’t worked. Niggling injuries have meant that the scoring burden has fallen on Chelsea loanee Tammy Abraham. When fit, however, Bony is a talented striker who scored nearly 40 goals in 70 Swansea appearances.
When Arsene Wenger signed Laurent Koscielny in 2010, nobody knew him. Arsenal had just waved goodbye to the twin disasters of William Gallas and Mikael Silvestre, and Gunners fans were crying out for a leader who would stabilise the defence. The transfer of a 24-year-old playing for a team in the lower half of Ligue 1 didn’t calm many nerves.
Arsenal fans needn’t have worried though. The Frenchman immediately became a vital part of the Gunners defence. An inspirational leader and combative defender who was as unruffled as he was tenacious, in each of his seven years since, he has been one of Wenger’s most trusted lieutenants. If he’s in form, Bony won’t have a chance.
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