We face Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final today, and, given it’s the only trophy we have any chance of winning this season, I would be delighted to see our players fired up for the occasion.
However these last three months have knocked any hope out of me. In fact, we haven’t played good football since the turn of the year (perhaps West Ham excluded) and our Monday game wasn’t nearly good enough to convince me of a bright future. I didn’t cover that game, but I did watch it, and our revolutionary switch to back three yielded nothing fancy. Our defence looked just as leaky (against the lowest-scoring team in the league too) and the whole lethargic approach lingered.
On the upside, at least Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech made a return, injecting some degree of control to our defensive efforts. The back four was still far from resembling a fortress, but I’d much rather have our captain and first-choice keeper available than not.
As I’m on the subject already, let’s jump to other relevant team news.
Team news update
Shkodran Mustafi suffered an unexpected training injury and will be unavailable for the second game running. Danny Welbeck can also miss out, albeit it’s not res judicata at this point. But given the recent form of both … I won’t say it’s advantage to have them out, but shaking things up in their positions might do us some good. It might not, given how toothless Giroud looked against Boro.
The other two absentees are David Ospina and Lucas Perez. Ospina’s still recovering from a back injury (I’m mildly intrigued whether he will start the cup final, provided of course we get there). Perez might as well have been dead and buried, his involvement has been so minuscule over the course of the season. Despite his cameos being highly efficient, Wenger prefers to keep him on the bench, unless the Spaniard is in hospital. Not sure where he spent more time this season. But the pitch is the firm third on this list.
City have injury worries of their own, with Sagna and Stones unavailable. The return of Vincent Kompany mitigates the loss of the Englishman somewhat. Also, given how erratic Stones can be, this might actually play into City’s hands. Gundogan will of course miss out too, the only other potential absentee is Gabriel Jesus. The Brazilian still has a chance though, in spite of breaking a bone in his foot mere 10 weeks ago. But I’m sure our defence will be kept busy by Aguero regardless.
It will interesting to see whether Arsene sticks with a back three, however like I said, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if the players are unwilling to put in the effort. Still, I’m pretty sure we’ll see a back three again: it will be extremely bizarre to change formation for just one game. If Arsene sees such a drastic switch as a shock to the players’ system, abandoning it so soon is unlikely to have any kind of positive effect.
In the absence of Mustafi we don’t have much room for rotation at the back, so the same trio of Gabriel, Koscielny and Holding is in order. A case can be made for Per Mertesacker, but for some reason the skipper hasn’t been involved at all since coming back in January. I assume Arsene won’t pluck him out of the cold for the semi-final.
Despite quite a few injuries, our midfield department is virtually full. I’d swap any two of our central midfielders for Santi Cazorla of course, but that’s beyond the point. Which is that Arsene faces a selection headache from an extremely unmotivated bunch. Oh joy.
As we are entering uncharted waters with a back three, this is a good time to say I have no idea how the rest will line up. I’d say Bellerin and Gibbs are the most obvious choices for wing-backs, except that Hector was omitted for the last game, Gibbs hasn’t played for a decade and Monreal actually did quite well containing Sterling the last time we faced City. The Spaniard has also shown commendable qualities on the overlap. Gibbs has been our cup left-back though, so I think Wenger will go with him and Hector either side of our midfield.
The remaining midfield trio will obviously contain Ozil, but the other two players remain a conundrum. Personally, I would start Oxalde alongside Xhaka, but won’t be surprised to see Ramsey in his place. It is also possible Wenger starts all three, losing Hector, but I’m not keen on this scenario vs City. Most likely it’s a coin toss between Ramsey and Ox. Alexis, though nominally the 6th midfielder against Boro, was likely in that advanced position to act as a second striker, so for me it’s more of a 3-5-2 than a 3-4-2-1.
Finally, the last bit of the puzzle is the man to lead the line. I’m half-hoping Wenger will revert to Alexis up front (which yields an added bonus of squeezing in another central midfielder. Yummy, it’s a treat from Arsene’s perspective), but I don’t think he will. So it’s a shootout between Giroud and Welbeck’s speed of recovery. I think Wenger would have gone with Welbz against Boro, had the Englishman been available, and to be fair, Giroud hasn’t done much to convince anyone in his last outing.
Both points are mute if the supply line to our forwards remain as non-existent as it is, however. I’d plough with Giroud, simply because he is fully fit and readily available.
Predicted line-up: Cech – Gabriel – Koscielny – Holding – Bellerin – Xhaka – Oxlade – Ozil – Gibbs – Alexis – Giroud
City look a team with more belief in what they do and how they do it. They are also in much less dodgy (and ‘dodgy’ is putting it mildly) form.
However, there are two circumstances which prevent me from writing Arsenal off downright: last time we met with City we were in an even worse patch of form and still managed a draw and Arsene Wenger must be sharpening his knife, in the knowledge he is two wins away from getting the FA Cup. Two wins which might just about excuse him in his own eyes of staying on for two more years.
I sincerely hope Arsenal have it in themselves to get a win. It may lift us out of the current pit, maybe give us enough of an injection of confidence to claw our way back in the league. It will still be hard to win the cup even if we win today, Chelsea are waiting in the final, buy the final is not due until after the league is done and dusted.
So come on you Gunners. Do your best today.
Oh, and what did she wear?