No Ozil, no problem! Wenger finally wins the rotation game
The chant of “we are top of the league” in the closing minutes spoke volumes for Arsenal’s priorities this season.
So did Arsene Wenger’s team selection as he gave a much-deserved and well-needed rest to star man Mesut Ozil.
But the Arsenal manager played his cards perfectly as his side started their FA Cup defence with a 3-1 win over Sunderland on Saturday.
Ozil was rested from the squad entirely while the likes of Per Mertesacker, Nacho Monreal, Matthieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey were all ommitted from the Gunners starting line-up.
As much as Arsenal want to become the first club since Blackburn in the 1880s to win the FA Cup three times in a row, it was imperative that Wenger used this match to rotate his squad.
he risk was that it would backfire badly. Wenger’s rotation in previous matches this season had cost him badly including defeats to Dinamo Zagreb, Olympiakos and an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup.
This time he got it right by resting key men but naming a side with a mix of youth and experience. When he needed extra quality, he brought on firepower from the bench in Aaron Ramsey, who scored Arsenal’s second goal.
As you would expect, Ozil-less Arsenal lacked their usual rhythm and penetration without the German pulling the strings.
The difference was even more stark given he was replaced by Alex Iwobi, the 19-year-old who showed some flashes of quality but is still one of the youngsters labelled “not ready to play at this level” by Wenger after that defeat to Wednesday back in October.
That defeat at Hillsborough would have been in the back of Wenger’s mind but Arsenal were able to get the job done and book their place in the fourth round draw.
Equally importantly, they will travel to Liverpool on Wednesday both in-form and physically sharp.
They conceded a comical goal to fall behind after Laurent Koscielny was robbed of possession and Jeremain Lens slammed his finish past Petr Cech.
Joel Campbell equalised before half-time but the hosts still struggled to create clear chances, coming closest when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain struck against the post from 25 yards.
With the game in the balance, Wenger brought on Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta for Iwobi and Calum Chambers in the 67th minute.
It turned out to be an inspired decision as five minutes later Ramsey steered Arsenal ahead after fine work from Hector Bellerin.