Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger believes his current repertoire of attacking players is his deadliest yet after the FA Cup holders swaggered into round five and assumed the status of favourites.
Theo Walcott and Mesut Ozil both scored their first goals since lengthy injury absences, while evergreen playmaker Tomas Rosicky crowned a man-of-the-match display with a virtuoso third goal.
The Gunners were given a fright by Brighton’s much-improved second-half display, in which fine Chris O’Grady and Sam Baldock strikes punished sloppy defending and revived the Championship team’s hopes.
Wenger confirmed he is poised to bolster his rearguard by signing Villarreal’s Gabriel Paulista but preferred to focus on his team’s potency, even with Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla rested.
“At this stage of the season, never,” Wenger said when asked if he had ever had such an array attacking options. “Last year we lost many players in January and this year they’ve come back because they were out earlier.”
Of Walcott, he added: “For a first game it was encouraging. Ozil as well. Maybe they dropped a little bit physically in the second half but overall they were ready. [Rosicky] was wonderful; a player we all love. If you love football, you love Rosicky. On top of that he’s a fantastic character, scored and I’m very pleased for him.”
Wenger played down Arsenal’s favouritism after a weekend in which four of the Premier League’s top six were knocked out and another, Manchester United, were held by fourth-tier Cambridge United.
“We will be one of the favourites because I think Manchester United could go through and some other Premier League teams will go through,” he said. “We’ll be amongst them but we cannot predict who will win it.”
Brazilian defender Gabriel, who offers cover at centre-back and full-back, was close to signing last night. “It’s on the line and I think we’ll get over the line tonight and tomorrow,” Wenger said.
Walcott silenced a record crowd at the Amex Stadium in the second minute by fizzing a low shot past David Stockdale from right-back Calum Chambers’ whipped cross.
Ozil marked his first start since early October by converting Rosicky’s disguised through-ball as rampant Arsenal threatened to overwhelm a timid home side.
Brighton emerged after half-time with added vigour and revived their chances when O’Grady spun and fired into Wojciech Szczesny’s bottom right-hand corner, though Rosicky’s impudent one-two with Olivier Giroud and volley kept Arsenal in front despite Baldock dinking a polished second goal for the hosts.