Arsenal, still alive with chances to win in three competitions, face red-hot Southampton in the 4th round of the FA Cup at St. Mary’s park. The Saints, having just booked a trip to Wembley by winning both legs of a League Cup semifinal over Liverpool, may be less rested, but should still provide formidable competition for the Gunners.
Although Arsenal are undefeated in six matches in all competitions they have been getting off to slow starts. Of the 14 goals scored in those matches only 2 have come in the first half. Southampton promise to be just as tough to break down; Liverpool seemed to run out of ideas on Wednesday at Anfield despite the Saints being without the center back pairing of Virgil Van Dijk (injured) and Jose Fonte (transferred to West Ham). Instead, Maya Yoshida and Jack Stephens played just ahead of Fraser Forster, a goalkeeper who has been notoriously stingy when playing against the Gunners. Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis were also key in controlling Liverpool’s attack from their deep midfield positions. Dusan Tadic had a big first half chance and Nathan Redmond looked the best attacker on the night even if it was the veteran Republic of Ireland forward Shane Long who scored the lone goal late on to seal a place in the final.
Manager Claude Puel may, of course, choose to rotate his squad a bit given the short turnaround from Wednesday’s match. So too might Arsene Wenger who will have to watch this one from the stands as he begins a four match touchline ban due to his foul language and physical contact with the 4th official in the crazy final moments of our 2-1 win last Sunday vs Burnley.
Three weeks ago, in our 3rd round cup match at Preston North End, Wenger chose to give full rests to stalwarts Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Laurent Koscielny. Will he choose to rest these guys again, keeping an eye on the next league match vs Watford on Tuesday night and the big showdown with league leaders Chelsea next Saturday? Frankly, I’m not sure he can afford to play without them, but my hunch is he might try and get away with doing just that. If he does hold them back, however, it could provide opportunities for the likes of Lucas Perez, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck. Theo Walcott is also back from injury and available for selection.
Changes might also come at the back. Hector Bellerin is fit again and Per Mertesacker and Kieran Gibbs are both back in training. David Ospina will surely reprise his cup-keeper role.
The only area where Arsenal are really short is in midfield. With Granit Xhaka suspended for four matches due to his red card vs Burnly, Santi Cazorla out injured and Mohamed Elneny’s Egyptian team through to the knock out stages of the African Cup of Nations, the rear of our midfield will almost certainly be manned by Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey. Wenger mentioned that Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Alex Iwobi could also play there if necessary. In his pre-match press conference Wenger suggested that one or two younger players might feature but that, overall, it would be a first team squad. Wenger must be remembering that a much changed team in the quarter final round of the EPL Cup was thoroughly outplayed by Southampton and defeated 2-nil on our home pitch.
With all that to consider, I must say that I don’t feel at all confident in putting out a perspective line-up, but here goes. (And, on top of that, the football formation graphic doesn’t seem to be working for me today:)
Substitutes: Martinez, Holding, Gibbs, Maitland-Niles, Reine-Adelaide, Walcott, Giroud
Playing a team such as the one above and giving full rests to the likes of Alexis, Ozil and Koscielny is one thing at Preston North End but another at a club like Southampton. If he does go for such a line-up it might suggest that Wenger wants to prioritize the league and wouldn’t mind being done with the FA Cup. To my mind, losing this one would set a bad precedent ahead of very important league matches and the two legs of our Champions League round of 16 battle with Bayern Munich. Arsenal have been teetering as it is, relying on last gasp heroics seemingly in match after match after match. What we need is a convincing performance, ideally with some first half goals, and a win. Losing, or even playing to a draw, which would set up a mid-week replay on 7 or 8 February, would only add to our burdens and undermine what seems like an already very fragile confidence.
Who would you like to see play and who do you think Wenger will choose?
Personally, I’d much prefer to see a stronger line-up with many of the regulars we use in league play. Yes, we have ostensibly more important matches on the near horizon, but I think Wenger should respect the cup and play his strongest team. It also might help the manager and his assistants in getting used to the touchline ban if we go with the tighter squad. Rotation and getting a bigger group ready for first team action is necessary, but nothing can replace the confidence of a good performance and result.
Go on then…