In April, it will be a century since Arsenal last lost a match at Hull City. I assumed that it was at Boothferry Park but no, apparently their ground at the time was Anlaby Road. It certainly wasn’t the KC Stadium where they remain undefeated. That’s today’s boring fact out of the way, with fate tempted for good measure. Go the whole hog, that’s what I say.
The FA Cup remains Arsenal’s last chance for silverware, despite the protestations of the manager and contrary evidence of maths. Yes, there’s a ‘s’ in that one. Same as in ‘silverware’; those interesting facts keep tumbling out, don’t they. And in no way is that one boring either.
OK, so now I’m bored with where this one is going today. Understanding your thinking, Arsène; understanding your thinking.
Saturday’s point at White Hart Lane whilst not inducing a sea-change of opinions, has left Arsenal a little more positive. The players, according to Wenger, “will feel different”, more positive, particularly with the equaliser coming under duress. Those circumstances – reduced to ten men, two goals quickly conceded – were ripe for an Arsenal capitulation; it never happened and that genuinely was good news given the recent run of form.
It’s an attitude which has to continue this evening, even with changed personnel. Despite acknowledging the importance of winning the FA Cup for a third consecutive season, Wenger noted that he would be rotating the squad but aiming to keep the balance right.
His options are limited with Laurent Koscielny not likely to return before the trip to Catalunya. Petr Cech is out until after the international break whilst Francis Coquelin is suspended. None of the other walking wounded are any closer to a return either.
Personally, I would field the strongest XI possible. We’re hardly in a log-jam of fixtures with a normal break between Tottenham and this game, followed by a match on Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon. There’s no real pressure on the players in that sense.
But Arsène loves to tinker with his cup sides, doesn’t he. Some like Calum Chambers benefit from the outing although tonight will surely see him as a central defender with Wenger unlikely to risk both of his fit first choice centre backs. Gabriel’s English problems make him most likely to rest. It means Bellerin is likely to continue his duties on the right.
The question for Wenger is over his frontline. Alex Iwobi will come in for Özil but does he rest both Sanchez and Ramsey or is his plan to rope-a-dope with Theo Walcott leading the line? It’s a tough decision, not for the players whom he must omit, but to know which one of his strikers is likely to score.
Joel Campbell is the only one to have found the net in the last five games, an area which remains a concern. Walcott has one in the last sixteen games whilst Giroud hasn’t netted in the last eleven. Even allowing for substitute appearances by both, it’s a worrying record and underlining the continued desire for a consistent goalscorer to be signed.
Everyone accepts that there might be runs of three or four games when players don’t score, even those who top the scoring charts at the end of the season have barren patches. But that is astonishingly poor and with each passing minute, the pressure on both mounts.
It also means that in the likely XI, only Chambers, Walcott and Giroud have scored this year. Yes, I’m looking at you, the other seven outfield players. That’s the fundamental reason Arsenal need to find better goalscorers. As good as Giroud or Walcott are, their form this season – over the context of the whole campaign – makes them Plan B players. Substitutes to be brought on or rotated in for cup matches.
They don’t score frequently enough and in Giroud’s case, makes a mockery of those who trumpeted how good he was by hitting fifty Arsenal goals quicker than Henry. The problem both have is that when goals are in short supply, it is the forwards who come under the toughest scrutiny which rather lets the rest of the squad off the hook. All players need to be chipping in with goals through a season; full backs, centre backs, midfielders – even the defensive roles. It’s been a problem for a number of seasons and shows little sign of being resolved any time soon. Or any transfer window soon, I should say.
Tonight’s line-up then:
Ospina; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Chambers, Gibbs; Flamini, Elneny; Walcott, Iwobi, Campbell; Giroud
The ‘big guns’ will be kept on the bench, I think. Only to be used if it goes awry ought to be the mantra Wenger takes with him. Leaving out Ramsey means ageing actors can rest a little easier this evening; his 2016 cull is quite impressive.
It’s a vital match tonight. A genuine chance of silverware and with Watford in the next round, you sense a chance of a Wembley return is realistic, winning the trophy trickier than in previous years but eminently achievable. Hopefully Arsène and the players have the same view.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.