Cup-ties are tricky fixtures by their very nature but being at home is a genuine advantage and playing against lower league opposition is another one. This really should be a straightforward game for the Gunners unless they mess it up.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to make this game harder than it should be. One is the classic – Be a Gooner, Be a Giver – approach where opponents get gift-wrapped goals courtesy of unforced errors from one or more Gunners. The second is linked to team selection. Too many changes to starting line-up, involving players who don’t have sufficient match-practice, and the consequent lack of balance and cohesion can lead to a major drop in performance. In some ways it’s also linked to problem of defensive instability. Just when the Gunners seem to be hitting some sort of a rhythm in their combination play, disrupting the flow does not seem like the ideal choice.
But given the nature of the modern game, rotations are a necessary evil. The trick lies in doing it without affecting the level of performance rather than in avoiding it altogether. I’ll be very surprised if Wenger doesn’t make a fair number of changes for this game, with a strong bench available to salvage the game. It worked at Brighton in an away game in the previous round so it should, at least in theory, work at home against Blackburn who are just one position and two points behind Brighton in the Championship table.
We could see the likes of Podolski, Gervinho, and Oxlade-Chamberlain in attack. That will mean a complete change from the attacking trio that took the field against Sunderland. In midfield, resting Wilshere seems the right thing to do and Cazorla might join him. Arteta missed a few weeks through injury so he probably won’t need a break right now but in such cases I think it’s best to leave the decision to Wenger as he has all the information about players’ fitness. Hopefully, he’ll err on the side of caution, something he hasn’t always done. The FA Cup is worth chasing but not at the risk of losing key players for long periods. And quite frankly, if the squad depth can’t handle such a tie then there is a bigger problem anyway.
Rosicky – I don’t know why we haven’t seen more of him – and Diaby could be in the starting line-up as they need games. Coquelin might also start if he’s fit. Whether he starts in the centre of at right back remains to be seen.
In defence, Monreal and Vermaelen should come into the side. Wenger could give Mertesacker a break and start Miquel in the centre but that would be a tad risky. Not conceding goals can make up for a lot of other issues. Over 90 minutes Arsenal should find a way to score if they can keep things under control at the other end.
We might see,
Szczesny – Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal – Coquelin, Rosicky, Diaby – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Gervinho.
Arsene could go with any of a dozen or more possible combinations where enough first choice players get a break without making the starting eleven disjointed.
Blackburn are a decent team on a positive run of form. Early in the season (weeks 5-7) they were top of the Championship. By the 23rd week they’d fallen down to the 17th position. Now they’re back up to 8th and looking to push on.
They’ll certainly offer a strong resistance at the back and Rhodes will be a handful in the penalty box if he gets some service. It’s worth noting that Blackburn have only won 3 away games in the Championship and they’ve been against teams currently in relegation spots. At the same time they’ve only lost 3 of their 15 away games, albeit 2 of those defeats have come against teams above them in the Championship table. 60 percent of their away games have been draws. Arsenal will want to avoid that result as it’ll simply add another fixture and an away one at that.
The Gunners should progress to the next round if the players chosen by Wenger do the simple things right. Arsenal also have a good record of not losing to lower division opposition in the FA Cup under Wenger but the Bradford result shows just how easily such records can tumble.
I won’t be able to watch the game of Saturday as an urgent matter has come up. For those who’re interested, a match report will be published but it will be late on Sunday or in the early hours of Monday. Hopefully, it will be a good game and worth taking about even a couple of days after it’s over.