Arsenal are in FA Cup action this evening, taking on Leeds United at the Emirates.
It’ll be interesting to see how Mikel Arteta approaches this one, because after a very busy and physically demanding period, it would be natural to rotate the squad a little bit. At the same time, there’s a need to ensure we put out a competitive team this evening because the cup provides tangible success at the end of the season.
Even looking at it on a more short-term level, having beaten Man Utd on Wednesday, simply building on that and producing some winning momentum is important at this stage. This isn’t a game we can just treat as an irrelevance, not least because our Premier League season doesn’t allow for that. Maybe, just maybe, if you’re scrapping for the top four you can give that greater priority, but that’s not where we are and thus the FA Cup becomes more important.
Nevertheless, it does feel as if some measure of rotation/rest is going to be necessary. By his own admission Arteta is asking the players to do more; David Luiz says they’re not physically there yet to carry out those instructions for 90 minutes; so it seems likely to me that we’ll see a team that’s quite different from the one that faced United.
I don’t know how much we can read into a Tweet from the @arsenal account which says ‘Next step: the return’, and features pictures of Rob Holding, Hector Bellerin, Dani Ceballos and Gabriel Martinelli, but if all four are fit, you can see how they’d slot into the team for this evening. None of them have played yet under Arteta, and they’ll surely be keen to put their injuries behind them and get going under the new boss.
Dinos Mavropanos is another who could potentially come in at the back, giving Sokratis and Luiz the rest their experienced bones required, while at left-back there might be a chance for youngster Tolaji Bola, or Bukayo Saka could get the nod again – if not he might play further forward. In midfield, Ceballos fits into the Ozil role with Joe Willock and Matteo Guendouzi behind him, while up front we’ve seen Gabriel Martinelli lead the line to good effect – thus allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alex Lacazette a rest.
I don’t quite know who else would be part of that front three, but I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Nicolas Pepe started tonight as Arteta looks to polish him into the player he wants him to be. Could we even see Eddie Nketiah play against the team he was on loan at until last week? Perhaps we’ll see something like: Martinez, Bellerin, Mavropanos, Holding, Bola, Willock, Guendouzi, Ceballos, Saka, Pepe, Martinelli.
I’d expect a smattering of experience on the bench as a kind of insurance, just in case we need something to change the game, but there are some other young players who might get the nod and get a run out if things are going our way. One thing is for sure though, this is not a competition Arteta is taking lightly, because he understands as well as anyone how much it can mean to a football club.
Having been part of the team which won the cup in 2014, thus ending a nine year trophy drought (thankfully nobody ever mentioned that during the fallow period), he’s well aware of what success can do for a group of players, and he wants the same thing for this team.
Speaking ahead of the game, he said:
I think winning brings togetherness and, when you have beautiful experiences together and you win trophies, then those experiences stay within that group. You like more the people that you work with, you believe more in them, you share some fantastic moments and that habit of winning, winning, winning.
After you win, you don’t want to stop. You become addicts to that and that’s what we have to try to implement at this football club.
If there was a trophy for saying the things, Arteta would have won it hands down by now, but he’s got to elicit performances from his players which match the words he speaks. Tonight will be a chance for some of them to impress their new manager, to show him what they can do, and also to take steps back towards first team football on a regular basis. The squad is pretty thin right now, so if we can get the four players previously mentioned back to full fitness and have them available every week, that will certainly help as the season progresses.
Leeds come into this game top of the Championship, so obviously they’re a decent side. You just wonder how much that will inform their own team selection tonight. For them, promotion to the Premier League is far more important, and a cup run could prove a distraction. Marcelo Bielsa has already confirmed he’ll be resting some of his key players, so with both sides ‘weakened’, if you want to call it that, it could make for a cracking cup tie. Leeds have nothing to lose, Arsenal have players with something to prove, and we’ve seen in the past how that can generate an exciting, open game.
As ever we’ll have live blog coverage for you, check back here later for a post with all the info or bookmark our default live blog page. We’ll have all the post-match stuff on Arseblog News afterwards too.
If you’re back to work today after the festive period, hopefully it’s not too taxing, and I’ll catch you later for the game.