Probably the quarter-final draw that Arsène wanted to avoid, happened last night. For a few minutes, it seemed as if a trip to Deepdale was on the cards but in the end, Wayne Rooney’s belly flop meant the defence of the FA Cup will continue at
the Lido Old Trafford. It will be Arsenal’s first venture outside of the capital since they faced Brighton.
And a chance to improve the recent cup record against United, 2005’s win in Cardiff the only victory in the last four meetings. You can extend that to any competition and as we are all too familiar with, a horrendous record against United generally.
No victories since 2011 is depressing reading to the extent that I didn’t want to go back any further; 1 in 8 was a bad enough record. I should imagine that single goal victory is probably the only one in about 14 or 15 meetings.
Last night’s win for United is clouded by Rooney’s dive. There’s no point in pussyfooting around the subject. It’s just baffling how anyone can claim it was otherwise. Simon Grayson has to be mindful of FA charges for misconduct but even he, the aggrieved manager, called it going to ground without contact. Avoiding a challenge seemed to be the determination.
That’s the same way he avoided a challenge at Old Trafford when he went down after brushing Sol Campbell’s shorts or when he managed to avoid serious injury when Manuel Almunia’s outstretched hand came within half a yard of his foot as the ball ran out of play.
Whether anyone speaks to Rooney in private is another matter. Most managers would quietly be pleased with the player for winning a cheap penalty which ended the tie. It’s a part of professional life and yes, players take the flack for those actions, rightly so and until the ingrained mentality in the game changes, we will always be faced with these situations.
The plus point is that generally speaking, it takes a while for the players – and their team – to win another penalty when there is an element of doubt. Whether that holds true at Old Trafford will be an interesting outcome.
Amid the billing and cooing in the aftermath of Sunday’s win over Middlesbrough, the question of how to fit Özil and Cazorla into a line-up with Alexis has been pondered. It’s a natural reaction; tinker with a formation, put old pegs in different holes and with a good performance, an alternative career evolves for a player.
This week’s model sees the question of whether Santi Cazorla is a long-term replacement for Mikel Arteta, settling into a deeper-lying role. On the face of it, a perfectly reasonable question with the immediate solution that frees up space for an attacking trio of Walcott, Özil and Alexis Sanchez, with Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as viable alternatives for the wide role.
With Alexis’ work rate, that particular combination fits nicely into home matches against weaker opposition where the tackles aren’t going to fly in. Of course it depends on a defensive midfielder alongside Cazorla, the water carrier quietly getting on with the job of protecting the back four, feeding the ball to the Spaniard as a prompt for attacking passages of play.
It wouldn’t work in the slightest at, for example, Old Trafford where United have routinely outmuscled Arsenal in midfield. Last season’s Premier League meeting underlines the approach they take in this fixture. Whether Van Gaal will change it, I don’t know but it seems to me that in three weeks time, Francis Coquelin will line-up alongside either Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere as opposed to the overtly attacking formation which emerges with Cazorla deeper.
The issue is not so much who fits where but of the squad system itself. It’s uncharted territory for Arsenal having two good / world-class players in most positions. Even Arsène’s successful squads have not really had this many good players in reserve. If you look at The Invincibles, the alternative choices weren’t as experienced or of the calibre of the current squad.
When you’ve got Pires, Henry, Bergkamp ahead of Vieira, Campbell, Toure, Lauren and Lehmann, you probably don’t feel the need, as a manager, to invest, particularly as their injury records were for the most part, a lot better than the current group.
Viewing a player’s future can be too rigid. The modern game, even a decade on from Wenger’s most successful squad incarnation, is about rotation, making the most of the resources available. Injuries this season have been bad, in key positions which have negatively impacted through a lack of depth.
The rigidity with which formations or player positions is a thing of the past. Wenger’s reputation for stubbornness emerged in part from a strident belief in a certain tactical outline. Fluidity in the application was left to the players free will; to a certain extent it always is with decisions left to individuals once they cross the white line.
There has to be more flexibility now, something which has emerged in recent weeks. Injury and results forced Arsène’s hand in the same way other managers have found in the past. The core style of play remains – short passing, rapid movement – otherwise each week becomes disjointed but there also has to be more flexibility, to adapt to opponents and situations.
As much as his beliefs were responsible for that, so to was the quality of players available. That rests with Arsène, he signed them, moulded a number of them but was never able to find the right combination to bring success until last season. Maybe that was it, maybe he will find more in the future; it’s a matter of judgement.
As well as immediate opinions, we have the luxury of hindsight to inform us. Wenger does not but his decision making is deemed better than ours and that’s part of his reward package; he’s expected to get it right more often.