Arsenal are expected host Sunderland in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night, and Mikel Arteta could make several changes to his starting XI.
The Gunners are coming off a somewhat busy schedule – something that didn’t seem possible with no European football on offer this season – so there’s a chance to rotate heavily after three games in a week against Southampton, West Ham United and Leeds United.
As always, the Carabao Cup is a competition that will provide opportunities for youngsters and players on the periphery such as Mohamed Elneny, Calum Chambers and Rob Holding.
For some, though, the Sunderland game is as crucial as they come.
There is a need to impress the Spaniard, particularly for a select group of players who find themselves somewhere between first-team regulars and outcasts.
And for others, there’s a chance to impress scouts ahead of the January transfer window – although how much can be learned from a game Arsenal are expected to dominate remains to be seen.
As a result, we’ve taken a look at those who really need a good night against Sunderland.
Things can change in football very quickly. Just ask Bernd Leno.
He went from starting the season as Arsenal’s undisputed goalkeeper to playing second fiddle to Aaron Ramsdale and there’s little sign this decision will be reversed anytime soon.
Therefore, as it’s likely the German international will get a chance in between the sticks on Tuesday night as Arteta rotated his goalkeepers in the competition thus far, it’s important the 29-year-old keeps Ramsdale on his toes.
Only just back in the squad following a groin problem, the keeper could make his first appearance since the round four win over Leeds United.
Of course, with the transfer window coming up this is another chance for Leno to put himself in the shop window as defeat could reduce the opportunities to do so again.
It’s been a strange few weeks for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Since a man-of-the-match display against Watford at the beginning of last month, he’s not made a single appearance.
In addition, there was some confusion amongst Arsenal supporters with regard to his absence from the matchday squad for the 4-1 win over Leeds United.
Perhaps he was being kept back with the Sunderland game in mind? Whatever the case is, we’re slowly approaching a period where Maitland-Niles could become a key player for Arsenal.
Very soon Mohamed Elneny and Thomas Partey are expected to depart for the Africa Cup of Nations, thus leaving the Gunners short of options in the middle of the park.
Based on Arteta’s decisions, Albert Sambi Lokonga is probably favourite to get the nod to partner Granit Xhaka in Partey’s absence.
However, the Belgian has unfortunately tested positive for Covid-19 which will rule him out of the Sunderland clash and he may not play again in 2021.
Maitland-Niles is the next midfielder in line and can serve a timely reminder that he’s ready for a long run in the engine room, starting with Tuesday night’s game.
Towards the end of last season, it was looking like things were finally beginning to click for Nicolas Pepe after struggling for consistency since his club-record £72m transfer.
After netting eight goals across all competitions in the final two months of the 2020/21 campaign, he was rewarded – and rightly so – with a start in five of the first six games that he was available for at the start of this season.
However, as Bukayo Saka’s best performances tend to come when he starts on the right-wing, it has been a problem for Pepe.
In recent weeks, the Ivorian has continued to find himself on the bench more often than not and at 26 years of age, the writing is pretty much on the wall when it comes to his chances of nailing down a place in Arsenal’s forward line.
But he can still put himself in the shop window or save his career.
To do so, he needs a consistent run of performances. On his day the winger can be a problem for the opposition defence and he needs to find his best on Tuesday.
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Assuming Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not considered for selection once again and Alexandre Lacazette is rested, there could be a new name leading the line for Arsenal on Tuesday.
Eddie Nketiah is one option, but he has been used from the left-hand side of late and for him to get the nod whilst his future is still unclear would be a bold call from Arteta.
As a result, Folarin Balogun could be in line for a rare start through the middle.
Now, football.london understands that Arsenal have already received a number of enquiries regarding the striker and a loan deal in the January transfer window.
But after impressing at U23 level this season, Balogun deserves to show why he can be the Gunners’ future no.9 before he heads off for first-team experience during the second half of the campaign.
Having not featured in a first-team game since the opening month of the season, Balogun will have a point to prove that he belongs on this stage.