Arsenal – Middlesbrough FA Cup 5th Round Match Preview
Minimal changes or Roll the Dice?
What Would Constitute a Win?
Following on from the last post on this fine blog, I thought I might try my hand at a little Haiku. Here goes my attempt at 17 ‘syllables’:
It’s just a game, right?
Misery is in the eye
Of the beholder
Arsenal host Middlesbrough in the marquee time-slot (Sunday, 16:00) of Round 5 of the FA Cup, as they continue in their attempt to defend the trophy they won a season ago. With so many top clubs already out of the competition a home draw against a club from a lower division seemed a good one. But is it?
By drawing Middlesbrough at home, a team that got there by beating the Premier League Champions, Manchester City–on their own ground–in the previous round, Arsenal are now the hunted scalp. To a neutral this is a mouthwatering cup tie and a classic David vs Goliath affair. To Arsenal supporters it is something altogether different. Can Arsenal actually “win” this sort of tie? What sort of match–in terms of result AND performance–will it take to satisfy our support?
Most certainly the 2-1 league win in midweek vs Leicester City, winners of the Championship a year ago but currently sitting bottom of the Premiership, was not enough. Consensus suggests that we rode our luck in that one and were dominated by the smaller club in the 2nd half. Injuries to key players Alexis Sanchez (already coming off a couple of missed matches) and Aaron Ramsey added to the sense of gloom. The three points were nice, but having lost that same quantity to arch-rivals Tottenham at the weekend, they seemed far from sufficient to restore full confidence.
Middlesbrough have no such issues. They are currently in the exact position Leicester finished a year ago. They’re top of the Championship and have won six matches on the trot and haven’t lost in ten. They say that winning is a habit, so my hunch is that our opponents will come believing they can get one. Simply remaining unbeaten in the calendar year would work a treat as well. A draw would mean a replay up on Teeside and an additional mid-week fixture. While Boro would prefer going straight through to the quarterfinals, a tough midweek trip to the Northeast is the last thing Arsenal need, given that the Champions League elimination matches begin later this month.
Moreover, Middlesbrough have been winning by defending first. In 30 matches this season they have conceded only 20 goals. In these last ten matches, only three. Manager Aitor Kananka, a disciple of Jose Mourinho, has got his players working as a group, looking to defend from the front and counterattack at pace. It worked at the Etihad, so why not at the Emirates? Winning the match, on the scoreboard alone, may be tough enough.
Beyond the pressure to outscore the opponent there is pressure to rotate players. Typically, Arsene Wenger uses the domestic cup matches as a chance to rest a few regulars and give others a chance. No matches until the weekend and the fact that it is our trophy to defend, however, may alter the calculus. Still, as results and performances fail to satisfy, would-be managers suggest things would be better if we only played _____. Others, sharper with their tongues and their keyboards, suggest that certain players who have failed (in their eyes) need to be rested, if not benched entirely (or sold).
It makes sense, of course. After all, something new and something different are what we hope for when gifts are wrapped and sitting under the tree. The festive season is not so far behind us, after all, nor is the season of giving to ourselves–the January transfer window. We’ve got a big Brazilian defender all ready to go and surely he’ll get his debut. If Gabriel Paulista comes in to spell the aching Achilles tendons of Laurent Koscielny and plays in tandem with Per Mertesacker, ahead of our dropped (or merely disciplined?) keeper, Wojciech Szczesny, Arsenal will have one of the tallest central defences in all of football. Not many have seen Gabriel in action so some may have their doubts. Will he be a compliment to the other big men or will it be too much of the same (tall, thin) thing?
If those changes are the obvious ones, how many more can Arsenal afford?
Not too many, I think. It appears that Spaniards Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin have nailed down starting roles as fullbacks, just as Francis Coquelin seems to have done at the defensive midfield position. Will those three go again or will any (or all) of Kieran Gibbs, Calum Chambers or Mathieu Flamini be given the nod? Up front, Olivier Giroud only came on as a sub vs Leicester, so he likely goes straight back in to the first 11 in place of Alexis. Theo Walcott scored in midweek but many were unimpressed by the remainder of his game. Is this then a chance for Danny Welbeck? Some have even suggested that Chuba Akpom might get his first start. And who will fill out the midfield? Mesut Ozil is in fine form, but Santi Cazorla’s seems to be on the wane. Jack Wilshere has been training with the first team for several weeks and should make the bench at least. Could he go straight into Ramsey’s spot or will Tomas Rosicky, who started there on Tuesday, reprise the role?
My point is that calling the starting 11 is anybody’s guess. Here’s mine:
(Predicted subs: Ospina, Chambers, Gibbs, Flamini, Wilshere, Welbeck, Akpom)
That’s only three changes from Tuesday. Personally, I think too many more would be too much. In my opinion, against such an in-form opponent, consistency and predictability are needed. Players knowing each others’ games and preferences can be a precious commodity. With only minimal changes the new players can step in, based on what they’ve observed in their teammates. Needing goals against a team poised on the counter, our ability to balance attack with defending could be the difference maker. Too many changes might compromise that critical element.
What sort of line-up would you expect and/or prefer? Also, what would constitute a “win” for you in this cup tie?
In my opinion, and carrying on from my Haiku, too many Gooners, perhaps spoiled by the memories of past glories, seem in it only for the larger triumphs. Personally, I have faith that further glory lies ahead, but even if it doesn’t there are games to be played and enjoyed. This season has been a struggle, but, with players coming back from long term injury and the emergence of some real quality in the youth ranks (Chambers, Bellerin, Akpom) and some squad players making claims to starting spots (Monreal, Ospina, Coquelin) we seem on the up. Gabriel has yet to be seen in action, but his transfer filled a real hole in the squad. Additionally, we put to bed the notion that Arsenal can only play one way and are always at risk of a drubbing against the bigger clubs. The very well fought win of our own up at Manchester City less than a month ago, where we had only a third of the possession (but all of the goals), we hoped, seemed a real turning point.
To be at the highest level, the level to which a club like Arsenal aspires, means that matches against the smaller clubs are expected to be won–and won in style. Still, they must be played; meaning the result–and the experience–must be risked. Can a journey with uncertainty and risk be enjoyed or can it only produce anxiety which is then laid to rest only until the next one? In other words, have supporters gotten to the point where only the destination can be enjoyed? I would hope the twists and turns, ups and downs, and memories made along the way can be just as satisfying as the moment the trophy is lifted, the confetti flies and the bubbly is uncorked. Maybe the journey itself IS what it’s all about…
That journey continues tomorrow afternoon at 4, in our stadium, against Middlesbrough, in the 5th round of the FA Cup. Go on…