In every season there are those few fixtures and junctures that tease and tempt the worst out of fans. What I mean by that, is every year there’s some weird fixtures that almost have a die hard fan thinking, “should we lose this one?”. Often times there one or two. This year’s first seems to be Brighton.
It’s not unusual for it to come in the form of an EFL Cup match, but that doesn’t make you feel any less unusual for considering a loss a win. You sit there and think, of course I don’t want them to lose…. but…..
And you feel a little guilty.
The reason everyone considers these pro/cons is usually the same one or two: focus and schedule congestions. The second half of the season, as I have probably written in every blog this month, is “shrouded in mystery”. Once again teams are entering unprecedented territory, this time in the form of a small, not-that-important, mid-season International tournament…
No one knows how their players are going to come back from the competition, and no one knows how the players not going to the World Cup are going to rebound after their break. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out there is no consistency and it’s on a player to player basis. The challenge becomes giving your players the best chance of navigating what will inevitably be a congested schedule while maintaining a driven focus on the competitions that matter.
Which brings us face to face with this dilemma and Arsenal’s first EFL Cup match against Brighton. Personally, for every reason a person could wish Arsenal just bow out and clear their schedule, I could probably come up with a reason it’s worth staying in the competition:
- Silverware is silverware and football is about winning it
- Matches are spaced out and midweek
- Following the point above, we have talked all Europa League about the fact that these players don’t really have “rest days” in modern sport science
- Keep fringe players and substitutes on the ball and match-sharp
- Keep fringe players happy and playing games
- Work in youth or injured players
Point being, while these aren’t the most convincing of arguments, and they run a little parallel with the benefits of the Europa League, we can’t pretend there aren’t benefits to competing in an event that Manchester City often wins. Now I’m not daft, Manchester City win it and play their B-Squad throughout, but there’s nothing binding Arteta to playing our regulars.
But that’s also the problem. In the face of having no obligations to play a strong side, Arteta has vowed to play “a very competitive team”.
Arteta told Arsenal.com, “It is a different competition but the purpose is the same, to play as good as we can, win the game and go into the next round, You know there are no second chances and we’ll take it very seriously.”
“We’re going to pick a very competitive team. I think everyone deserves chances, and we’ll make some changes with judgement in relation to the load of the players, but we’ll play to win.”
Of course Arsenal will play to win, why would we think otherwise? BESIDES the fact that I opened this blog by suggesting maybe this is a match that some people, not me but some people, might believe Arsenal shouldn’t win.
And with Arteta’s response it would seem he has every intention of picking a side that will compete. He then stated, “The ones that haven’t played want to have their chance, and feel that they are contributing to the team. The positive thing is that everybody has played games and everyone has been important. We have two games to go, and the focus has to be there because we know that afterwards we have a big break.”
And herein lies my reasoning for this intellectual thesis: Arteta is likely to treat the EFL Cup the same way he treated the Europa League group stages and pick a very familiar lineup.
Nevermind the fact that I also believe we will see Brighton select a strong side as they may view the EFL Cup as a real opportunity to put their club in contention for a deeper run for silverware that would excite their fans, I believe Arteta will view this event as an opportunity to keep players fresh, give minutes to fringe players as he did in the Group stages, maintain winning form and winning habits, and make a run for silverware.
Whether this mindset and philosophy helps or hurts Arsenal in the long run will be judged in time, especially considering it does not guarantee some run to the EFL Cup finals, but it probably tells us that Mikel is taking this game far more seriously than most fans.
So, if you were one of the people that thought well, I wouldn’t mind us losing, or you were hoping to see a selection consisting of nothing but our younglings and Cedric Soares, you may be disappointed. Except for with the Soares bit.. he does seem likely for this match.
There certainly are a few spots up front that remain in question, especially around Marquinhos or Nelson’s inclusion, but Arteta seems to opt for Eddie + a regular XI winger + a youth or fringe inclusion up front. I think after a few kicks and bruises, Saka will get to sit out the first 60 minutes until he is subbed on later.
In the midfield, it feels like a night to see the Elneny-Sambi combination we saw versus Zurich. The only reason for reconsideration would be if Arteta didn’t feel it was an effective option.
In back, there is always the chance we see Saliba get the call instead of Gabriel; Arteta has been rotating them for these fixtures on an almost on-off basis.
We won’t know until the selection comes out, but I would prepare yourself for a side the mimics the lineups we have seen in Europe, if not stronger.
Overall, I think that’s okay. There is value in having matches in the second half of the season that these players can play in midweek to stay sharp. There is value in keeping players happy and playing as the squad gets more competitive. Sure they all want Premier League minutes, but for some that’s not happening. Being in competitions like this can offer an easy man-management win and if ever Arsenal lose, I doubt it will be met with immense anger. All upside!