Arsenal have travelled from one disastrous pitch to another this week – losing two centre-backs in the process, albeit to entirely different injuries – and are now back at the scene of that inspirational win last Saturday that has been washed away from most Gooner minds by the midweek mayhem in Milan.
Will the performance at the Stadium of Light reignite Arsenal’s season? Somehow I doubt it. Not just because one demoralizing performance is usually followed by another, or the number of defeats that we have already seen this season in games that follow Champions League encounters; it’s just hard to define what reignite would mean in the context of the current situation that Arsenal find themselves in.
I have strongly maintained the club needs to drop out of one or both the Cups in order to put in a strong challenge for fourth. That opinion hasn’t changed and, to an extent, the result at Milan was a positive in that regard. Regular readers know I am not a fan of the artificial pressure that is created by the no trophies for X years mantra. Right now it’s more important for Arsenal to secure Champions League football in order to retain the best current players and also to attract the quality ones that Wenger could be interested in.
It must be noted that, when I say dropping out of the Cups could help the push for fourth in the League, it does not mean just throwing the games away. Only that Arsene should not risk key players or those on the edge in such games. Give the fringe players a chance, adapt tactics to their qualities, and make them give their best for a result. Be prepared for a disappointment but don’t play for one.
Now, while I don’t think getting to the next round of the FA Cup will be that big a positive, it’s impossible to deny the impact of two successive losses in Cup games. Last season has already provided a chilling example of the kind of slump the Gunners can fall into after such defeats. A repeat of that will make the dreadful start to this season look like a dream run.
It’s not an easy choice for the manager then. When is it ever!? But he will have to find a way to ensure his players don’t suffer from the exertions of this tie and that the club doesn’t have to endure two horrific efforts within a few days.
Team selection will not be straightforward but I would like to see a few players rested. Up front, Gervinho should come back into the side on the left with Oxlade-Chamberlain moving to the right. Chamakh should get a game because Van Persie can do with a break, especially on such a pitch.
At the back the choices are limited. Sagna, Djourou, and Vermaelen will have to start. Gibbs could again get an hour’s playing time if he hasn’t suffered from his efforts at Milan.
In the midfield I’d like to see Coquelin get a game alongside Arteta. In front of them it would be better to have Benayoun or Ramsey for the work rate.
Preferred starting eleven
Szczesny – Sagna, Djourou, Vermaelen, Gibbs – Coquelin, Benayoun, Arteta – AOC, Chamakh, Gervinho.
This side might not have enough creativity to open up a dogged and well-organized Sunderland side but they should be able to keep things tight. If Benayoun can make some interesting runs in attacking areas or the Ox and Gibbs can land a few good crosses for Chamakh, Arsenal can nick a goal or two.
Van Persie or Arshavin can come on late in the game if the Gunners need some extra bite.
That said, I don’t expect Arsene to make that many changes. He did confirm in his interview that he will refresh the side but it’s always difficult to be sure about Wenger’s intentions. Gervinho will most likely come back into the side but I’ll be surprised if there are other changes. At most one more. Wenger will probably go with the same midfield he’d played at Sunderland last Saturday.
Tactically, this game won’t be very different from the League game. Sunderland will be compact in defence and will rely on counter-attacks and set-pieces. They could get some ideas about attacking Arsenal on the break if they study Milan’s tactics but whether they have the players to execute those moves remains to be seen.
Le Boss thinks the hosts will be more aggressive with their tactics in this game. That could work in favour of Arsenal as it could open space up in the Sunderland half. But if a relatively weaker side is selected, they’ll have to demonstrate the technical prowess needed for handling the pressure that O’Neill’s side is likely to put on them.
For Arsenal, the key will be in winning the aerial duels, closing down the runners on the flanks that are chasing the long balls, ensuring the defenders aren’t exposed to a 1-v-1 or a 2-v-2 on the break, and avoiding basic errors at the back.
In attack, the Gunners will have to rely on better and more intricate combinations. It should not be about a winger running with the ball and looking for Van Persie or a wide player crossing it for De Kapitein. Other players have to be involved and the tactical approach must suit the strengths of the Gunners who are on the pitch. For instance, if Chamakh starts, there should be a greater emphasis on crosses and layoffs. If Benayoun plays, others should be alert to his dribbles, movement, and sudden threaded passes. Coquelin, if he gets a chance, and Arteta should also try their luck from distance. And so on.
The state of the pitch could also have an impact on the tactics that Wenger chooses. If it’s not conducive to running with the ball or for playing measured through-balls, Arsene might try to add an extra midfielder on the wings as he did against Milan. That didn’t work out very well but tricky players aren’t always effective on a dodgy surface anyway so there is no reason to assume playing fleet-footed wingers is the better choice. This is one of those decisions where a manager’s choice is hailed or criticized not on its merits but based on the final result.
I do expect a higher intensity from the hosts as this is a Cup tie and they will be coming into the game without having played an energy-sapping midweek fixture. That could be the big difference as, in the final minutes of the previous tie, Arsenal benefitted from a similar rest.
I don’t have a particularly positive feeling about this game but, to be honest, I am rather indifferent about the result. As long as the players selected do their best and there aren’t any further injuries I’ll be happy. One should not get the feeling Sunderland went through just by appearing on the pitch. If they play well and get through all credit to them.Follow @goonerdesi