Morning, and happy Friday to you all.
We are in FA Cup action this evening as we travel to Manchester to take on Man City. I’ve seen plenty of discussion about how we deal with the cup competitions this season, with suggestions we shouldn’t do anything that might jeapordise our Premier League title chances. And look, I get that.
Except, the two things aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s this thing called the double that we’ve done more than once, but I understand why some people might be a little wary of how a busy schedule might impact us. What I can say though is that I’m pretty sure Mikel Arteta is going to look at this as a competition he wants to win and tonight’s game has a special significance for him on a personal level too. He was Pep Guardiola’s assistant, the two remain great friends, and he worked at City for a number of year. As yet, he hasn’t won a game against them as a manager, and with two league games to play between now and the end of the season, there’s a psychological aspect to this fixture which could well be important.
Update: I forgot the small matter of an FA Cup semi-final in 2020. Doh!
Yesterday, in thinking about this game, I was convinced we’d see some changes. Not too many, but a few. Mostly in the wide positions. For example, I think he might start Kieran Tierney and Takehiro Tomiyasu in the full-back positions. These guys were the first choice full-backs last season, so it’s not as if you’re sacrificing a great deal of quality, and they do need to play and feel included.
Similarly, further forward, I saw this as a chance to get some important minutes into Emile Smith Rowe after his return from injury – but I’ve seen some chatter this morning that he might not have made the trip. That’s unconfirmed, and it would be a bit of a shame if it were true because this was a chance to start building his match fitness. I thought he and Leandro Trossard might get the nod, but if Smith Rowe is out then one of Bukayo Saka or Gabriel Martinelli has to start. The Belgian on the left and Saka on the right probably makes the most sense.
After that, I don’t think he’ll do anything to the spine of the team. Maybe Matt Turner might play ahead of Aaron Ramsdale (maybe), but I fully expect to see William Saliba and Gabriel at centre-half and Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka in midfield. In that area of the pitch, with Mohamed Elneny injured and the club seeing reinforcements, I don’t think we have much choice. Albert Sambi Lokonga has been disappointing this season against much less impressive opposition, so it’s hard to trust he’d just turn it on against City.
I’m a little torn on the Martin Odegaard/Fabio Vieira decision. My gut feeling is that he’ll go with the skipper, but like with Smith Rowe, cup competitions are a way of including players who have been on the fringes. Not just to give them minutes to keep them happy but to make sure they’re up to speed if they’re needed in the Premier League. However, Odegaard’s quality and influence would be hard to do without, and I think he’ll form the final part of that midfield triumvirate. So, all in all, a strong side, and despite what I said about the full-backs earlier, if it was Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ben White rather than Tomi and Tierney, I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
The fact is that we have eight days after this one before we play again. It’s not like we have to take into account a midweek fixture or anything like that, and while we might harbour some fears about injuries might impact us, I don’t think the manager or the players approach games with that kind of mindset. Anyone who thinks Mikel Arteta might go weak in this game for fear of something that statistically isn’t massively likely to happen hasn’t been paying attention to how he operates.
Ahead of the game, the manager said:
It’s a big match, and a big test for us against in my opinion the best football team in the world. I’m looking forward to it because it will tell us a lot about where we are.
Obviously it is important to win and play well. That gives you more momentum, more confidence and prepares you better for the next match, and that’s our focus to do that on Friday.
Of the three times we are set to face City this season, this is the least important in my opinion, but it doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. If you go there with a weakened side and get spanked, it’s not good preparation for the league game in a couple of weeks – even if you have the ‘It’s just the cup, we made changes’ get out. Nor does it mean a win tonight will ensure three points in the league, but it’s been a long time since we got a good result against them, and that’s a psychological barrier that could be useful to break before then.
Given all that, the connection between the two managers, and the respective quality of both teams, we could see a very intense game tonight. You implement a winning culture by taking every game seriously, and both these managers will be desperate for the win. It could be a cup cracker.
Right, let’s leave it there for now. As ever we’ll have live blog coverage for you later on, and all the post-game stuff on Arseblog News. I’ll leave you with a brand new Arsecast below.
Catch you later for the game, and come on you reds!