They should really call it the AFC Cup, not the FA Cup.
Arsenal are the most successful team in the history of the competition. We have won it 14 times, including four times in the last seven years. It is “our” trophy more than any other in football’s pantheon.
Which all gives Mikel Arteta something of a conundrum today.
We have rediscovered our form in the last three matches thanks to a shift in formation, the introduction of some young players in key roles and the abandonment of certain senior pros who were not pulling their weight.
So does El Patron persist with that winning formula today and start Smith Rowe as a Number 10 and Saka wide right? Does the encouraging partnership of Holding and Mari get another outing at centre back? Do we play Lacazette down the middle again?
Or does the boss look at this competition as being not quite as important as the league games and bring back the likes of Pepe, Willian and Luiz to get them some game time?
Such is the nature of these things that I suspect he will go for a compromise approach, putting out partly a “cup team” but trying to do it in such a way as not to dent our momentum.
We don’t play again until Thursday night (home to Palace in the League), giving us a full five days to recover, so fatigue should not be an issue with selection.
Nevertheless, if El Patron decides to rest someone like Smith Rowe, it can easily be presented to the player as being a decision based on his importance (“I really want to keep you fresh and fit for these vital league games coming up”).
By the same token, in a long season we are bound to need to call on players like Willian, Pepe and Luiz at some point as a result of injuries, suspension or tiredness, so there is sense in keeping them fresh and motivated.
I have no doubt that Arteta will want to come out on top today and to win this competition overall. He won it as a player for Arsenal and again in his first half-season in charge as manager, the latter hugely cementing his position and helping protect him during the recent terrible run of form. And also giving us fans a joyful end to a difficult season, it should be pointed out.
He said in his press conference: “We are the holders, we have to defend that title. We know what it means to the club and the history that is related to the FA Cup. It’s a great competition to play in for us.”
What of our opposition? Steve Bruce seems like a decent bloke but his team have struggled to get into gear this year. Newcastle sit 15th in the Premier League (only four points behind us!) but they have shown some ability to lift themselves for cup games, reaching the quarter finals of the EFL Cup.
Premier League survival will be top priority for Bruce and Newcastle this year but a good cup run can lift spirits and improve league form, so they will be equally keen to do well today.
Through a combination of our recent resurgence, the fact the game is at The Emirates and the quality of the opposition we should prevail, but it won’t be handed to us on a plate. We need the same effort and application we saw against Chelsea and West Brom in particular.
As far as player availability goes, Partey and Gabriel were still being assessed as of yesterday (the former for his thigh injury, the latter for Covid). Everyone else seems to be available.
My guess at the line-up:
Bellerin – Holding – Luiz – Tierney
Xhaka – Elneny
Pepe – Smith Rowe – Martinelli
My reasoning is that Martinelli deserves another start and the cup is an opportunity to rest Aubameyang without it being a case of “dropping the captain.” Much as I would like to see Saka start I fancy either Willian or Pepe will be given the right attacking position and I have plumped for the Ivorian.
I fancy Arteta will want to give Luiz some game time, so Mari will (unluckily) miss out. I don’t have a problem with Luiz starting. He was vital to us winning the trophy last year. We just have to hope he doesn’t have one of those ‘Dopey Daviiiid’ moments.
I suppose we could put Balogun or Eddie in the central striker role but I can’t see either of them being able to slot into it and instantly achieve what Lacazette has done, so I think we’ll persevere with the in-form Frenchman.
If Arteta decides to rest Smith Rowe for this one then the most appropriate replacement might well be Willian (gulp). If so, he really owes the fans a performance.
Over to you. What sort of team should we be putting out today?