FA Cup Sunday. We’re getting used to this, aren’t we? That, and stupid non-traditional kick off times, coupled with having to pay for two subscriptions. This weekend I’ve wanted to watch a bit of FA Cup action and without BT Sport on my TV, I’ve been limited to Match of The Day. It’ll only get worse when they get the Champions League rights. eugh, Michael Owen commentating on Champions league football…
Still, there’s no need to be grumpy when there’s a game afoot to prepare for, so the in-form Middlesbrough travel to The Emirates looking to chalk up higher-class slaying number two to their list of victories this season. It’s a tough one to see exact how this one is going to play out, actually, because we don’t know whether Middlesbrough will ‘have a go’ so-to-speak, or whether they will try the old Arsenal tactic that was used against Moneychester City of ‘rope-a-dope’, sucking up pressure, hitting on the counter and catching your opponents cold. We’ve seen first hand this year alone, how that tactic can work beautifully providing the conditions are right (our trip to the Etihad), but also if the application is not spot on (the debacle at White Hart Lane). So whilst Middlesbrough represent a tough opponent with plenty of confidence at the moment, it is by no means a forgone conclusion that they’ll sit with a wall of defenders today. They might decide that they can have a go at us.
It’s probably unlikely though. The successive victories the Smoggies have had have been built on a foundation of defensive stability and having listened to the Arsecast yesterday where a Boro fan explained how they’ve been successful this season, I think we’ll see them look to hit us with their pacey attacking players, whilst absorbing pressure when we have the ball. If they are organised enough defensively – as Leicester showed – you can frustrate this Arsenal team. Leicester lined up with a back five and attempted to recreate a London version of the Great Wall of China in midweek, but I think Middlesbrough will line up in something that will resemble a familiar formation to us of 4-2-3-1. They’ve got an injury problem in the absence of Ayala, plus their Chelski loan signing (every team outside the prem has one of those, right?) Kalas can’t play because of his loan deal, but apart from that I’m not really sure where the real threats will come from. Karanka has apparently been a bit loan-hungry in snapping up some Spud youth players in Fredericks and Veljkovic, but whether they’ll play is your guess as good as mine. Jonathan Woodgate might step in, but if he does so you’d hope that our pace could expose him at centre half.
This must be a tricky one for Arsene. Against Brighton we played a Championship team that were in the bottom half of the table and had shown indifferent form. To all intents and purposes, Middlesbrough are playing like a Premier League team at the moment and if they continue their trajectory, they will be one before long too. So does Arsene name the strongest squad possible, safe in the knowledge that there are six days with which to refresh his players before we play Palace? Or does he rotate with it firm in his mind that he needs to keep his squad fresher rather than relying on a core of 12 or 13 players. I hope it’s the latter. I have always been a fan of keeping players ticking over when they are not regularly starting, so I hope there are some – not loads, but some – changes to the team that played against Leicester.
I would expect Szczesny to come in and I’m pretty sure Arsene has already said that would happen. I would have thought Gibbs would get another run out, as well as Chambers, but then the decisions become a little bit more difficult. Does Gabriel come in to start? It’s easy to say ‘no, keep the defensive partnership in the middle consistent’, but if Gabriel is to be properly integrated into the Arsenal team, he needs game time. Does Arsene play a midfield with Flamini instead of Le Coq? Again, I’m not sure. I suspect he might get the nod, as too will Rosicky having excelled in the last round and also having been impressive in the last couple of sub appearances he’s had. So who plays at number 10? Mesut with a start? If so, does Welbeck go left, Walcott right and Giroud through the middle? Or will Arsene opt for Welbeck through the middle? Giroud has taken a few knocks lately and with uncertainty surrounding Alexis and whether he’ll be back for Palace, you’d think Le Boss might be a bit more cautious with his team selection.
I think Arsene will field a strong team today. He might rotate slightly with the defence but I’m not sure we’ll see too many attacking changes. He will be mindful of the fact that yet another ‘tough’ fixture will have been eliminated yesterday in the form of Stoke (we’ve been knocked out away from home to them before!), so with Liverpool and United being the main threats for us should we progress, you have to be looking at this competition as a realistic target to win back-to-back. I would love to get us to Wembley again and a win today puts us – in theory – 90 minutes from it. So let’s hope the team treats this opposition with more respect than Man City did, does the business on our own ground, so we can look forward to the draw on Monday night.