The FA Cup, the trophy that has given the gunners so much happiness in recent years, is more of an afterthought this season, given the shot they have in winning the league. In fact, Wenger’s side is well aware of the amount of games a cup run would entail, already dealing with a beleaguered, fatigued and injured squad. Sunderland too are more focused on the Premier League, prioritising avoiding relegation to the romanticism of the world’s oldest trophy. For these sides, the realities, allure, and financial might of the Premier League meant the FA Cup lost a bit of its luster.
With this in mind, for Saturday’s third round tie, the changes made from both sides was expected given their situations. Big Sam made 7 changes to his usual XI, while Wenger made 5. Allardyce was surely keeping in mind the three relegation battles with Aston Villa, Swansea, and Bournemouth that are coming up this January. Wenger’s changes, in turn, sought to keep a balance between respecting the competition and resting tired legs. It was somewhat odd to see the continental Arsene defending the magic of the most English of competitions. It would be unfair to say he is putting his entire focus on the league, as his side still hopes to become the first team to win the FA Cup 3 times in a row since Blackburn 130 years ago. For Arsenal, it was about finding the right balance and his lineup reflected a respect for the competition’s place and prestige.
Their usual 4-2-3-1 looked a bit more like a 4-1-4-1 at times because Oxlade Chamberlain bursted forward to his more usual position, though he was, on paper, sharing the double pivot with Chambers, again tested in midfield. The 19 year old Nigerian Alex Iwobi gave Ozil a much deserved rest in the 10 role, his burst of acceleration and quick feet showing promise.
Throughout the first half, the makeshift Chambo double pivot meant Arsenal faced difficulties when playing out from the back, leading to a scrappy opening period which suited Sunderland and their counter-attacks. Lens, despite being isolated, showed he can be a self-sufficient striker, taking advantage of a Kosielcny error to open the scoring with a deft finish. Unable to find the front foot, Arsenal’s passing was disrupted and slower than usual, passes to the back foot preventing quick players like Theo and Campbell to receive the ball in space with any hope of an advantage.
The game could have become more problematic than it ended up being. Not only did Wenger have to strike the right balance between prioritizing among the different competitions, he also sought to find balance on the pitch as well, his substitutions eventually making a lasting impact and changing the course of the game.
Gibbs and Bellerin provided more width in the second half, pushing forward, especially on the right with Bellerin’s eventual assists. Immediately after half time, the gunners found themselves in an excellent spell of possession, dominating the game between the 45-60 minutes, a strong response to a questionable first half, desperate to avoid a replay the Black Cats would have been fine with.
The introduction of Arteta and Ramsey, especially the latter, helped Arsenal turn things around to keep their FA cup title defense in line. Yet, mostly it was Campbell who continued to impress, with a man of the match performance, clearly reveling in his newfound role, a start vs. Liverpool on Wednesday almost assured. Intelligent in possession, and always willing to find the open man, Campbell led Arsenal’s attack in Ozil’s absence.
In all, this proved a difficult game resolved by the gunners dominant second half. Amidst the changes, a familiar, yet somehow more resilient, Arsenal emerged. Key players rested, though making sure they made it to the next round, this was the perfect chance for Wenger to strike the ideal balance, between players, injuries, and competing priorities as the season progresses.