Away games are generally tough and more so in Cup ties where the smaller teams feel they’ve a good chance of causing some upsets on their way to glory. There is no doubt Wenger would have favoured a home game in a CO Cup tie that he’ll use to rest his first choice players, but Arsenal travel to the Madejski where Reading will feel they’ve a fair shot at going through.
By now most managers know Arsene Wenger’s priorities. It seems safe to assume Brian McDermott will be prepared for a second string Arsenal side so it will be interesting to see how many changes he makes to his eleven. I don’t think the Royals have too many youngsters vying for starting birth so we should see at least half their first team from the kick-off.
That will make this a noticeably tougher game than the home win over Coventry in the previous round. Reading are a team with noteworthy quality in the final third. Most smaller clubs struggle for goals but the Royals have scored 11 goals in the League – only Southampton have more among the bottom 8 clubs – and a further 3 each in their two CO Cup games.
Strikers like Pogrebnyak and Roberts are ably supported by midfielders who make clever runs and provide a genuine goal threat. They’re also strong in the air and have the ability to link intelligently on counter-attacks. The hosts are not averse to shooting from outside the box either. Reading will test any defence that Arsene Wenger sends out.
Their problem has been at the back. in 7 out of the 10 games they’ve played in all competitions, Reading have conceded 2 or more goals. They’ve not received many thrashings like Southampton or Norwich, for instance, but McDermott’s side has been leaking goals and chances on a consistent basis as they do tend to leave gaps at the back through some basic errors in positioning, judgment, or execution.
I am tempted to say there should be three or four goals in this one but with a much changed Arsenal side it’s going to be difficult to predict the patterns of play. Will the Gunners be able to dominate the midfield as they usually do? Will they be able to generate and sustain a tempo fast enough to upset the defensive rhythm of the hosts? Will Reading be able to impose their experience and physicality on the relatively inexperienced Arsenal side? Will Wenger’s side have the ability to soak up pressure if the hosts do get an upper hand in midfield? Can Arsenal use their pace and skills to score on the counter-attack or will be see a session of hoof-and-defend?
Wenger made 11 changes to the starting line-up in the previous League Cup fixture and he could do the same again. One would think Djourou, Koscielny, Jenkinson, Coquelin, Arshavin, Walcott, and Gnabry are almost certain to start given how close they’ve been to the first team. Frimpong, if fit, could also be in the starting eleven. Martinez will probably line up in goal as Wenger mentioned Szczesny was still some way away from full fitness. That leaves two positions up for grabs. Miquel could be the preferred player at left-back.
The final choice could have a big say on the way this game shapes up. For instance, Wenger could pick Chamakh up top and start Walcott on the right with Arshavin through the middle and Gnabry on the left. Or he could pick someone like Yennaris in midfield, as he did against Coventry, and start Walcott in the central role he covets.
In the latter choice, Arsenal will have greater technical balance to the side and a relatively stronger collective defence. With Chamakh in attack, the Gunners will have a better reference point going forward and a player who can link the wide players with the midfielders, but the team will miss a body in midfield.
I think, given the fact that this is an away game, the wiser choice will be to start Yennaris in midfield. Wenger could pick him on the right or through the middle. This would make it easier to give Arshavin a free role with marginal defensive responsibilities. Furthermore, it will also liberate Walcott of defensive duties on the flank and make him a constant source of concern for the Reading defence. The hosts will have to push up if they want to impose themselves on this game and that could be the ideal scenario for Theo. Of course, if Walcott plays down the middle and the Gunners are pinned back to the extent that they can only hoof the ball forward, his obvious weakness in the air could be detrimental. In that case, Wenger can always bring Chamakh on at some point.
Martinez – Jenkinson, Djourou, Koscielny, Miquel – Yennaris, Coquelin, Frimpong, Gnabry – Arshavin – Walcott.
Notionally, this would be a 4-4-1-1, but really it could be any variant of the 4-5-1 depending on the way the game shapes up. The basic idea is to give Arshavin and Walcott as much freedom as possible. This system will test Gnabry though, as he’ll have a heavy defensive burden. The German youngster will have to take care of the ball better and can’t afford to give it away cheaply like he did in the build-up to Schalke’s second goal. The game could give him some lessons in decision making in order to find the right balance between attack and defence.
At the back Djourou and Koscielny will have to produce big performances to keep Arsenal strong. Martinez will be tested in this game and it should give us a good idea about his potential.
It’ll be interesting to see whether Wenger selects any of his senior players on the bench. Against Coventry we only saw Chamakh and Squillaci on the bench but AOC and Giroud started that one. Injuries have weakened the squad somewhat and some key players clearly could use a breather so they’re not likely to be involved, but Wenger knows he might need a comeback in this fixture if the club are to progress to the next round and that means he’ll need quality on the bench. The absence of players who can make a difference will clearly put the CO Cup in its place and is likely to disappoint some fans, but the manager is in a tough spot with a couple of vital away fixtures coming up in the next few days so he’ll have my sympathy.
All-in-all this should be a riveting game with plenty of action in the final third.Follow @goonerdesi