Gunner Thoughts

FA Cup Conundrum: Go Strong or Rotate + Starting Lineup Prediction

A football conversation conundrum as timeless as the game itself: rotate and rest players or go strong?

The magic of the FA Cup. The idea of hunting a well-round 15 FA Cups in the trophy cabinet. Manchester City on the schedule.

Even with all that staring back at me, it feels impossible to divert my thoughts from Premier League. 

I want this season to somehow last forever to bask in everything that this ride has been, but also be transported to the next league match so I can see Arsenal collect their three points and feel comforted by their continued march toward immortalization. 

And with thoughts like that constantly on my mind, even in the build to today’s fixture, I have found myself spending more time reveling in our 50 points, transfer activity, and looking past this match into February.

Why is it so hard to have everything I want in life? 

You can tell that many fans are at a crossroads in their thought process as well when football’s perpetual conundrum revives itself: should we willingly sacrifice this match to focus on other competitions? 

I write about the thought like it’s an annoying buzz that routinely floats around Arsenal discourse, but more often than not, it’s a rational question. Or, maybe a more logical question would be, will Arteta play a strong lineup and chase the cup win or safely rotate his squad in favor of giving the Premier League, and even Europa League, preferential treatment.

In my efforts to align my thoughts before writing the blog, it was easy to list as many reasons to believe Mikel will play a strong side as to believe we will see rotation. Often each reason had an easy counterpoint within the same breath. 

  • Put out a strong team to try and win the game and give confidence to the players that they can be City.
    • But the stakes are lower and players know it, so will they bring that energy? And if you lose, does it stand to shake confidence? 
  • Play your strongest players for 60 minutes.
    • Does that risk injury or fatigue? And what does that do for the reserves that you’ll count on within Premier League matches later this season? You have to keep them as match-sharp as possible
  • Concede the FA Cup and focus elsewhere, reduce match congestion.
    • But it’s still a piece of silverware, one Arsenal loves to win, and football is all about chasing silverware. Plus, Arsenal’s next game is eight days after this match.
  • Rotate the side and see what happens
    • But Manchester City will play a strong team even with rotation, and you can’t shake the confidence of these players by sending them out to be slaughtered. There has to feel like an opportunity for success.

You get the picture. And I am sure there are infinitely more variations and digressions the mind can wonder down in an effort to reason this out. But the question remains: what does it feel like Arteta is likely to do. 

My answer: Rotate with a purpose

Winning is a Habit

They say winning is habitual and it’s a hard statement to argue with. Teams that win seem to find ways to win when the going gets tough. They get the taste for that feeling and have an understanding of how to push themselves into that extra gear that earns themselves winning results. As a manager or club, creating that practice is difficult and constant work, it’s cultural.

This winning culture is one that Arsenal have been inculcated with through Arteta’s words and actions. As the team has grown, or even when you hear them speak to the media, it’s clear to see the players have imbibed the lessons and mentality.

Dating back to Arteta’s first interview as Arsenal manager, he sat down and laid out his blueprint for success.

“We have to have passion, we have to be dominant, we have to be aggressive. We have to play in the opponent’s territory as much as we want.”

“I want the ball, I want to attack them as much as possible, I want to prevent them from attacking me as much as possible.  But as well, I think we have to create the right culture around the club that’s going to make a good living out of the players, create an environment where everybody respects each other, a humility and people have to be accountable for what we want to achieve.”

It’s a blueprint that has come to fruition this year, but it’s an identity that must be maintained at all times. To cede a game, especially a knockout cup match, will feel to him like it flies in the face of that identification.

Rotation with a Purpose

The answer to tomorrow is probably not as simple as rotate or don’t, assuming we do believe that Arteta will field a side with winning intents. If anything, he won’t simply because I am not sure Arsenal can wholesale eleven changes to the side and come close to victory. In fact, a side with eleven changes may not only see Arsenal lose, but shake the confidence of those rotated players. And having confidence shaken up by Manchester City, even being an FA Cup match and a different set of players, has a chance of affecting confidence in the Premier League where Arsenal are in direct completion for a league title with City.

At the same time, Arsenal’s squad is thinner, rest opportunities are few but needed for regulars, and while there is a full week between this match and Arsenal’s clash with Everton, it’s important for backups and substitutes to stay match fit.

It’s why I presented the idea of rotation with a purpose.

Ensure the players that regularly feature on the bench or undoubtedly have a role to play during the remaining season get minutes, and supplement key positions with strong figures from the core group of regular starters.

The list of rotation players that should be strongly considered for minutes:

  • Fabio Vieira
  • Leandro Trossard
  • Emile Smith Rowe
  • Takehiro Tomiyasu
  • Kieran Tierney

The list of rotation players that fall into the category of “could be considered”:

  • Reiss Nelson
  • Elneny (although injury makes this unlikely)
  • Lokonga
  • Rob Holding
  • Mat Turner
  • Jakub Kiwior (Only Arsenal will know where he stands, a big debut ask, but not impossible to see him get minutes)

Now, if all of them were given a starting role, Arsenal would have an entirely rotated side. So my belief is simple: Most of the five players in the first list will start, and a side will be pieced around them.

Amongst the obvious selections, come a few very interesting positions:

  • Nketiah feels likely to start as Arsenal don’t have may other options, but Arteta has played with ‘false 9’ looks.
  • Who makes up the midfield, or more specifically, which regulars make up our midfield? Xhaka? Xhaka and Partey? All three?
  • Does Arteta alter the center back pairing or retain the entire spine?
  • Is this round the inevitable round in which the goalkeeping duties are returned to Ramsdale?

With these questions in mind, this would be a setup I could see Arsenal playing with to achieve “rotation with a purpose”.

This would be five key changes, a consistent spine, a midfield capable of putting our best foot forward, and players that Arsenal will need to use during the remainder of the season as substitutes and depth.

Having said that, this would be one of the few matches we haven’t seen Saka or Martinelli start, which are of course two of Arsenal’s better attackers. If one of them gets the call, that wouldn’t be a shock. Additionally, we have not seen a lot of Saliba-Gabriel pairings in cup matches. If Arteta turns to Kiwior or Holding, it wouldn’t be a surprise.

I do believe we will se a strong midfield, and likely that means Xhaka and Partey start together. Who attacks in front of them could be any of three players — Ødegaard, Vieira, or Smith Rowe.

As with other matches, there could be plenty of pre-planned substitutions for the 60-minute mark.

Few to no matches are “free hits” in the mind of Arteta who wants to win them all, and yet, he stated in his prematch interview his belief that the comparisons between this match and when City and Arsenal play in the league end at the players on the field.

“I think there are going to be two very very different games [between the FA Cup and league matches], and to put similarities into them is very unreal. Maybe because of the players on the pitch, but as well the context is extremely different.”

Whether that indicates he doesn’t feel the need to chase this match with a strong lineup will be seen, but it probably suggests he is capable of separating the two and contextualizing the competition at hand.

Arsenal have not played City this year, and the media will want to bill this as the warm up clash to determine the League winner — but it really isn’t. Everyone would do best to remind themselves this starts and stops at being an FA Cup match carrying that amount of gravitas — no less, no more.

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