Good morning morning, from a wonderfully sunny Maldives, which is roasting hot too as well as being stunningly beautiful. With all this beauty around me there’s clearly only one thing on my mind, which is:
I wonder whether Emile Smith Rowe is fit enough to start this evening?
You can take the Gooner out of England, but you can’t take The Arsenal out of this Gooner. Or something like that.
Actually that’s not the only thing I’m left thinking today. I’m also working out whether I can stay awake until 2am to watch the game, because kick off is at that time here, so that’s going to be a dilly-of-a-pickle, as Ned Flanders would say.
But that’s a concern for later, because right now what I’m thinking about is how Mikel is going to line up his team tonight and what choices he’s going to make on his squad rotation. My immediate thought is mass rotation across the whole team, but I’m not sure if he’ll do that, you know. We’ve seen it before where you expect us to play lesser/weaker opponents in the Europa League this season and Mikel has sprinkled his starting XI with players like Gabriel Jesus or Bukayo Saka. But for today I really hope he doesn’t gamble on too many first teamers, especially in our attack, because we need to be very mindful of the fact we’ve got a massive game next Sunday against the Scum.
We also need to be mindful of the fact that this is Oxford’s big cup final. National TV, world watching, coming up against the team at top of the English football pyramid; this is their ‘big day out’ and so they are going to be throwing everything in to this. If there’s a 50/50 to launch in to, they’re probably doing it, so we need to ensure that we keep a number of our players wrapped up in the proverbial cotton wool this evening.
So my starting XI up against Oxford would be featuring as many rotated players as is humanly possible. I’d have Matt Turner in goal, start Cedric at right back if he isn’t on the verge of joining Fulham, give the centre half role to Tomiyasu and Holding, then finish off the back four with Tierney. It gives minutes in to the legs and that is a defence that has experience and should be able to hold their own against Oxford for sure.
In midfield I’d have Elneny in the holding midfield role that Partey usually occupies, with the two number eights as Lokonga and Vieira. Then, there are some decisions to be made in the front three, because I don’t think any of our main men should be seeing minutes tonight. The challenge we have, however, is that it is in attack where we are light and it is also where that injury to Reiss Nelson is somewhat problematic. Because if he was fit I think we’d have the bodies to cover. You could play Nelson wide left, Marquinhos right, then if we also had Gabriel Jesus fit you’d be expecting Eddie to start. But given we are missing those two players, Mikel is going to have to get his thinking cap on.
I’d still go with Marquinhos wide right tonight, but then the question remains over Smith Rowe, as I said right at the top of the blog. Is he fit enough to start?
If he is, get him in there, and it might also be a good idea to get him in there as a central striker. He’s only played there once in the Europa League two seasons ago and back then it didn’t really work, but I don’t think the experiment should die there. Arteta mentioned his versatility in his press conference on Saturday and so I think he’s thinking we could give ESR a shot in that position. If he’s not fit, however, who plays?
He could do worse than to look at some of the youth players that got some minutes in the second pre season we had in December whilst the World Cup was on. When he came on as a sub Cozier-Duberry looked lively, so why not start him at left wing? Or there are good things said about Kido Taylor-Hart, so maybe we give him a shot? the other option is to move Fabio Vieira in to the front three, shift Marquinhos to the left of that front three, then you have to find a midfielder to play in the Ødegaard role. Maybe somebody like Matt Smith?
I don’t know what Mikel might do this evening, but what I do know is that we should be avoiding playing players like Saka and Martinelli. They may be young, their legs may be able to cope with 90 minutes as it’s a solid six days before the NLD, but I just wouldn’t be taking any risks at all if I was in Mikel’s position. It just isn’t worth it.
All of this talk about The Arsenal and I haven’t said a word about our opponents this evening, Oxford United, but that’s because I know very little about them at all. They’re sitting in 15th in League One, they’ve averaged just over a goal a game in their division, but they’ve also averaged a concession of a goal a game too. They shouldn’t – in theory – be too much of a challenge for even a rotated Arsenal side, but you know how it is; magic of the Fa Cup, home crowd, etc, etc, blah, blah, there will be one player in the ranks who will be familiar to us: remember Marcus McGuane? Left our academy for the bright lights of Barca, but never made it and now plies his trade at Oxford. He’ll certainly want to make a name for himself and so I suspect he’ll have an extra zip about himself tonight. But regardless of that, my hope is we have enough and we get the job done.
There are those amongst our fanbase who say that we shouldn’t bother with competitions like this when we are where we are in the league, but I can’t subscribe to that thinking, not for a second. The FA Cup holds some fabulous memories for me personally and some of those days out will live long in my memory for sure. And if we overcome Oxford tonight? The small matter of an away tie against Man City, no less!
Right, I’m going to leave it there for today, I think. Got a bit of running to do before I eat and drink myself into a haze. Catch you all tomorrow for some kind of a match review.