“Diaby is a giant, mentally. To do what he has done, with the severe injuries he has had... he comes back every time, is dedicated and he deserves a lot of respect.” - Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger was in relaxed, expansive mood on Monday afternoon as he sat down to discuss his side’s Capital One Cup third-round date with Southampton.
Having seen the Gunners banish their Dortmund demons with a clinical dismantling of Aston Villa two days earlier, he was clearly looking forward to starting afresh in a competition that has provided more than its fair share of excitement down the years.
But really it was the resumption of normal business at Villa Park, coupled with a series of advantageous results elsewhere, that was the source of his satisfaction. Sometimes everything just falls into place for you, and that is exactly what happened over the course of a weekend that he had promised would be “significant”.
“No [it could not really have gone any better] because first of all you look after your own performance and on that front we did what was requested,” Wenger told Arsenal.com. “I liked the focus that we had, the personality we showed and the authority we had on the game.
“We responded very well and scored three goals away from home, didn’t concede and all the results of our direct opponents went for us. So it was a good weekend.”
Such is the football calendar at this time of year that there is little time to bask in your successes, and attention immediately turns to the Capital One Cup. While it may not be priority No 1 for Wenger this season, it remains a competition of real value to him - and Arsenal’s record over the past decade or so shows just how seriously they take it.
Prior to last season’s fourth-round exit, the club had reached at least the quarter-finals in their previous 10 campaigns, a run that included two appearances in the final. And with a sell-out 60,000-capacity crowd expected at Emirates Stadium, Tuesday's is a game of real significance. This is very much the cup of plenty.
Wenger has long adopted a policy of rotation for the League Cup and he admitted he will do so again this time around. That should mean a sprinkling of rising stars getting their chance in the first team alongside some more experienced heads, including David Ospina and Abou Diaby.
The latter was named on the bench at Villa Park on Saturday, having completed 90 minutes for first time in 19 months with the under-21s earlier in the month. It has been a long road back for the Frenchman as he fights to revive his career following a string of serious injuries, and Wenger is hopeful that Diaby has finally turned a corner.
“He's a giant, mentally. To do what he has done, with the severe injuries he has had… he comes back every time, is dedicated and he deserves a lot of respect,” the manager said. “I'm a huge believer in his quality and I'm sad as well that he couldn't show it more. If there is some justice, the future will be much better for him.
“Yes [I will rotate],” Wenger continued. “I have a big squad and we will still have a team of experienced players, and we want to do well in this competition. I believe this is an opportunity to give a game to players who need it and we go into a period where we play, and play, and play, and we want to continue to win our games.”
With six goals in four games for the under-21s so far this season, Chuba Akpom is doing more than most to push his case for selection and Wenger hailed the striker as “a huge talent”. The England youth international is likely to be joined by the likes of Isaac Hayden and Hector Bellerin in a squad that will blend youthful endeavour with hard-nosed experience.
It has been a remarkable start to the season for Southampton, a club that had been widely tipped to struggle in the wake of a summer exodus involving key players and staff.
With Calum Chambers signing for Arsenal, the club also saw proven performers such as Luke Shaw, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren and Rickie Lambert all depart for pastures new. The upheaval continued with manager Mauricio Pochettino moving to Tottenham to be replaced by a Premier League newcomer in Ronald Koeman.
But the Saints have marched on, and after five games their position of second in the table speaks volumes about the seamless transition they have somehow effected. It has certainly caught the attention of Wenger, who has nothing but admiration for their work - both this season and in the past.
“They are miracle workers at Southampton. Everybody expected them to collapse, they lost the spine of their team, they lost their manager and they bounced back in such a [strong] way. I must say that when I saw them against Liverpool [on the opening day of the season] when they lost, I thought straight away that this team is very strong and very good.
“Ronald Koeman has a great experience as a coach. He knows the game, he doesn't know the English league but he knows the Dutch league and has bought good replacements. All the players they brought in basically come from just over the channel, from Holland. He has done a great job.”
The challenge facing Arsenal on Tuesday night is sizeable: to maintain momentum with a much-changed team against one of the top-flight’s most in-form sides.
Yet the omens are good. They have never lost to Southampton in the League Cup, progressing on each of the four occasions that the two sides have met, while they have scored in each of their last 17 encounters with the south-coast club.
League Cup nights at Emirates Stadium are special too, with concessionary ticket prices and the chance to see the next crop of rising stars attracting full houses year in, year out, round after round. The competition may not have the glamour of the Premier League or the Champions League, but it has a value that is fully appreciated by Wenger, his staff and his players.
This is the competition that has helped launch the careers of Jack Wilshere, Wojciech Szczesny, Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey, so there is no shortage of motivation for the next generation. And for the more experienced members of the squad, there is the chance to forward their cases ahead of Saturday’s north London derby and the following week’s trip to Stamford Bridge.
There may be changes to the teamsheet on Tuesday night, but there will be no let up - on either side - in intensity, will to win and desire during what promises to be one of the ties of the round.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.