Monday, January 24, 2022

Leeds preview + Wenger on top four

Ok then,

after a dull weekend of FA Cup action it’s our turn tonight and we face Leeds at home. Last season this game was saved late on by a Cesc penalty. It was a pretty dour performance from us on the day and hopefully there’ll be no repeat of that.

The manager has already said he’s going to pick a strong side and while there’s certainly going to be a measure of rotation, I don’t know how much he can really do at the back. For a start there’s the choice of goalkeeper. If Fabianski were fit he’d start but he’s not so I can only assume Szczesny will maintain his place. The idea of rotating keepers in the cup is not so much to rest the number 1 but to give the understudy a game.

As it stands that ‘understudy’ is Manuel Almunia who started the season as 4th choice and because of Fabianski’s injury and Mannone’s loan is now on the bench. However, there’s no need to rotate keeper today. Almunia doesn’t need games and there’s no more risk in playing Szczesny than in any other game, or training session for that matter.

The lack of fit defenders doesn’t allow for much in the way of change either. Perhaps he’ll throw in Miquel or Yennaris at full back, perhaps move Coquelin to his favoured central midfield position to give Song a rest, but beyond that he really doesn’t have much choice. Djourou is suspended meaning Mertesacker and Koscielny are the only available centre-halves, apart from Squillaci whose lack of playing time this season tells its own story. It’s not just because of injury.

In midfield and up-front we’ve got players like Rosicky, Arshavin, Benayoun, Chamakh and Park all there if called upon, while it would be nice to see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain get something of a run out today. If not a start then surely he’s got to get on at some point later in the game. We know Thierry Henry will be on the bench which adds a certain something I can’t quite put my finger on (if only the French had phrase for that) to events.

Obviously today lacks the real tension and nervousness of a Premier League game but that’s not to say it’s not hugely important. For me the FA Cup is our best chance at a trophy this season and while Arsene has again made the point about the importance of a top four finish over one of the ‘secondary’ trophies, I’d hate for us to take this game lightly.

Anyway, in comments which are bound to create a lot of intelligent, reasoned and sensible debate, the manager said:

The basis of our life at the top level is dictated by the championship. If we can add on top of that the FA Cup it is fantastic.

Everybody is entitled to view it differently but you can’t compare winning the Carling Cup to every year qualifying for the Champions League. But it has always looked like: ‘Oh, you have not won a trophy so you have been nowhere for five years.’

I know exactly what he’s saying here and as frustrating as not winning a trophy for the last 6 seasons has been, the reality of modern football is that finishing in the Champions League positions is more important than an FA Cup or a Carling Cup win. We may not like it but it’s true.

It’s easy to talk about how silverware is the most important thing but ask yourself – would you swap an FA Cup win for a 5th or 6th place finish and no Champions League football the following season? The importance of a competition is dictated by the financial impact it has. Winning the FA Cup – a competition I really love – would be fantastic but playing on Thursday nights on Channel 5 (or not even that) not so much.

Our priorities, in order of importance, at the start of each season are: 1 – Premier League 2 – Finishing top four in the Premier League 3 – Champions League 4 – FA Cup 5 – Carling Cup

Maybe you could interchange 2 and 3, if you really wanted, but those priorities are sensible in the modern game and even if number 1 is out of our reach now and number 3 pretty unlikely given the standard of the opposition, that doesn’t mean we should ignore that top four finish.

I think Arsene was a little bit naive to have described the top four as a ‘trophy’ in the past. It’s not, it never will be, and it’s a source of frustration after a number of trophyless years, but you have to be fairly one-eyed to not know where he’s coming from. Money talks and the Champions League pot is so rich it talks louder than most. It might cause us to bemoan the days of old that cash dictates so much about the game but that is football these days.

All the same, there’s no suggestion that one thing should have to come to at the expense of another. Finishing in the top four can also be balanced with winning trophies, with winning cup finals. Let’s face it, the ‘trophyless’ tag should be gone now. Last season’s Carling Cup defeat was as traumatic as it was unexpected and the key for the manager is to find the right balance.

That means having a squad big enough, and capable enough, of competiting for all competitions regardless of their priority. It’s clear, for example, that in the Premier League the manager really only trusts about 15/16 of his players to start/contribute unless he has to use them when his hand is forced. That means that when we get to days like today we’re resting and rotating and hoping that those who aren’t trusted in that competition come good in this one.

Anyway, for today our priority is very clear: beat Leeds. Do that and we’ve got a home game against Villa in the next round. As I said, top four is hugely important but we can’t let it be our sole focus as long as there is a trophy to play for. And the FA Cup represents our best chance of one this season.

If you can’t see the game later on you can follow it on the live blog. Check back later for the blog post on that or bookmark the default live blog page. Updates are posted automatically for you to follow on your computer, tablet, phone or speak ‘n’ spell. Also, if you fancy a flutter on tonight’s game, Paddy Power is your man, giving you up to £50 in a free bet. Click here to register with Paddy Power.

Right, until later. Have a good Monday.

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