For Both Wenger and Guardiola?
A Chance for Redemption and a Place in the Cup Final for Two of England’s Biggest Clubs and Their Managers.
This year’s FA Cup is different. At the semi-final stage there are no minnows nor Cinderella stories. The top two Premier League teams, Chelsea and Spurs, with just 4 points separating them in the table, played their derby today. It was an end to end affair with Chelsea now looking very good for a domestic double after their 4-2 win.
Arsenal and ManCity will battle tomorrow for the chance to play Chelsea in the final, but, in truth, it’s a match that will also have a bearing on the league run-in. The winner should get a huge confidence lift ahead of their remaining league games. City are in the better position there, sitting in 4th place some 7 points ahead of the Gunners (although we have a game in hand). It’s not determinative, of course, but football is not played in a vacuum, and both teams have tough matches yet to play.
Unfortunately, in the modern era of huge money in English football, The FA Cup is not quite the prize it once was. Just ask Louis van Gaal, the former Manchester United manager, who, last season, lifted the trophy as he was simultaneously being replaced by that most mercenary of managers, Jose Mourinho. The cup was not enough and Van Gaal was adjudged a failure for failing to bring Champions League football back to Old Trafford with a top 4 finish.
Pep Guardiola, in his first year on the other side of Manchester, has echoed Arsene Wenger’s sentiment that finishing in the top 4 is the more important prize. Still, if you make the trip to the national stadium, why not go for the trophy that you can actually hold in your hands and lift above your head? Getting this far leads to some fixture congestion for the run-in, but there will be only one extra match–the final–and it will come after the European places have been settled. In disappointing seasons for both men, playing in that extra match will be an opportunity to put some gloss on their campaigns and take another stab at Chelsea who very well may have already lifted the league prize.
Guardiola’s team must be seen as favorites coming into the match. After a mid-season dip that saw their title challenge fade–and witnessed a desultory exit from the CL to AS Monaco–they have found better form in recent weeks, punctuated by last weekend’s 3-nil victory at Southampton. That match saw the return of Captain Vincent Kompany in central defense and his set-piece goal–not to mention the clean sheet–reminded Blue-Mooners just how much he’s been missed. That part of City’s team has been the weak link. 35 league goals against (compared to Chelsea’s 27 and Spurs’ 22) probably tells the tale of how Pep’s first attempt to conquer English football fell by the wayside.
Of course, Arsenal’s 40 goals shipped in league play tells an even sadder tale and helps explain why we’re on the outside (of the top 4 places) and looking in. It might also explain Wenger’s decision, a week ago at Middlesbrough, to make a major tactical shift by playing three at the back. Even though it was against the lowest scoring of all PL teams, it did not yield a clean-sheet nor a particularly convincing performance. Luckily, Arsenal showed that small bit of extra quality in front of goal and were able to eke out a 2-1 win at the Riverside to finally take some road points after four consecutive away defeats.
The unveiling of the tactical change–especially against such a poor attacking opponent–must have been a rehearsal for the more difficult tasks ahead, and, hopefully, with an extra week to practice it, the 3-4-3 will perform a bit better this weekend as well as in matches to come. As such, I think we’ll see it again along with an unchanged first 11.
Substitutes: Martinez, Bellerin, Gibbs, Coquelin, Elneny, Iwobi, Walcott
Or maybe not. It’s possible that Wenger was merely trying out some new ideas while giving rests to some of his players ahead of the congested run-in schedule. He could rotate again–and revert to his more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation–for the semi-final. Let’s remember that this one could go to extra time (and penalties) if there’s an even scoreline after 90 minutes. Then, on Wednesday night, we host defending league champions (and recently revived) Leicester City before traveling up the Seven Sisters Road for a North London derby at White Hart Lane next Sunday. Arsenal’s squad depth seems strong and this could be the time of the season when it needs to be fully deployed.
Wenger might also keep the three central defenders but opt for some subtle tweaks given that City present a rather different challenge than Boro did. Starting Hector Bellerin (and his new hair-do) as a wing-back (in place of the Ox) might help slow down Leroy Sane who has scored against us in both league matches this season. Likewise, at the other wing-back position, the pace of Kieran Gibbs could be favored over Nacho Monreal’s attributes. Playing Francis Coquelin or Mohamed Elneny in central midfield (in place of Aaron Ramsey and/or Granit Xhaka) might aid our defensive solidity or help maintain possession against a team that should be far more capable of keeping the ball themselves. On the other hand, if we are planning to cede the bulk of possession to City, using Theo Walcott as a front man might be preferred to the slower (but bigger) presence of Olivier Giroud. A final idea might be to get back to a recipe for success from the first half of the season and try Alexis at center forward and reinstate Alex Iwobi as his support on the left. I’ll stand behind my prediction for an unchanged first 11 (and the Boro match being a rehearsal for this one) but, as always what (t** f***) do I know? Who do you think Wenger will play and how would you approach this one if you could replace the man himself?
Replacing Wenger… Hmmm…
That subject–and the troubles surrounding our club that it represents–will hopefully be put to one side. Supporters who opt to travel across town to the National Stadium might choose to put the banners down and support the team to their fullest. Maybe a few might even opt to wear a yellow ribbon in their hair. It’s not the merry month of May but it sure would be sweet to win ourselves a return visit at that time.
Go on then…