Match day again and today it’s the Carabao/League/Littlewoods/Carling/Rumbelows/Milk Cup that will see Arsenal face off at home to Sunderland for a place in the Semi Final. Football is all about winning matches and, more specifically, trying to win trophies and a win tonight would take us close enough to a semi-final tie in which we’d probably face off against one of the big guns in Chelski, Liverpool or West Ham/The Scum, so it won’t be easy if we navigate a Sunderland side with absolutely nothing to lose.

They drew with Ipswich away at the weekend and haven’t lost a game since the EFL Trophy defeat to Oldham on 1st December, so they won’t exactly be on their knees confidence-wise, but it is still a game that Arsenal should fancy winning. We are 43 places above them in the football pyramid and have a training ground at London Colney which appears to be a happy place right now, if all of yesterday’s training pics are to be believed. Of course happy faces at training does not equate to victories on the pitch, so Mikel Arteta will need to have his game face on for the players he picks tonight and he’ll need to be stressing that nothing less than a proper performance will suffice for The Arsenal.

But he simply must rotate tonight. I think he will because there are plenty of squad players who haven’t been playing and when you make it abundantly clear that there is a clear first XI in your team with some of your selection decisions (we’ve been practically unchanged for the last three games) then you need to use opportunities like tonight to get minutes in to the legs of players who may just be needed over the busy Christmas period.

So for me that means we need to see an almost complete turnaround. Get Leno in goal. Let’s have Holding and Chambers in the heart of the defence in the absence of Pablo Mari. Either side of them play Tavares on the left and I guess it has to be Cedric on the right. In the middle of the park of course it’ll be Elneny, but who partners him is an interesting one. I didn’t see many pictures of Maitland-Niles yesterday and so whilst that would be my initial thought process, I wonder if he isn’t available for some reason. But if he isn’t who is? I think I’m right in saying Sambi Lokonga has COVID and so is isolating, so does he bring one of Xhaka or Partey in to that midfield? Not for me. I’d be dipping in to the academy. What about that  Salah-Eddine Oulad M’Hand, who has been performing well in the academy side? I know this sounds a little left of field. but if you’re surrounding him with senior pros it’s not as if he’s being fed to the lions or anything. It’d be a great bit of experience in him and if the club believe that he’s good enough, why not see how he gets on for 60 minutes?

Of course the other option is Charlie Patino and if I knew more about him that would probably be something I’d be looking at, but the admittedly little I know about him makes me think that he’s more in the mould of a number 10/ESR type player, whereas I think Emile might get the nod centrally tonight. But if Patino has been more regular in that deeper central midfield role, then let’s chuck him in I say.

In front of the midfield I suspect it’ll be Pepe, ESR and one of Balogun/Nketiah occupying the wide left and centre forward positions. This is an interesting one because part of me would rather see Balogun in a more natural central position, but as Martinelli has shown if you are a willing runner and willing to get in behind defenders with wide runs from outside to in, you could get joy if the centre forward can be an effective link man. The problem there is that Eddie is not a link man though. He isn’t going to drop deep like Laca does to retrieve the ball and then look to link with his wide forwards. Eddie wants to be in the box and so will want to be making runs off the shoulder of the defenders. So perhaps it is better for Balogun to play centrally and Eddie out wide? There’s also the fact that Eddie is running down his contract and so for me Balogun’s development is a priority over a guy who is a little bit of a contract rebel at the moment.

As for Sunderland, they appear to be a short passing team who like to play through balls but also utilise the wide spaces. Whether or not they will shift that style for us I think is surely inevitable; as a League One side coming to a Premier League side you can’t turn up on their ground and impose your game without any fear of impunity. So I suspect they will look to move the ball quicker and more direct when there is a turnover in possession and if they have any sense about them they will look to target our right hand side, because Cedric can be got at. There is of course space when Nuno attacks on our left hand side too and so the potential for space opening up, but his athleticism means for increased recovery runs and so if I was in charge of Sunderland I’d be looking at putting our most rapid attacker on Cedric and giving the team the instructions to get the ball in to the channels to see if that side of the pitch can be exploited.

We will of course be heavy favourites to win tonight but what I want to see is that the squad players can show they are ready to step in for any inevitable injuries that occur as a result of this compacted fixture list right now. I want to see players showing that they are fighting even though plenty have questions over their long-term careers at the club. Competition is what elite sport is about and I want to see that those players just behind the first XI are striving to deliver that competition.

Catch you wonderful humans tomorrow for a match review.

Laters peeps.