The FA Cup has become a competition in which Arsene Wenger tends to try and rotate his squad. However, ahead of Arsenal’s semi-final clash with Reading, Wenger must take care not to destabilise his in-form team.
Addressing the media ahead of the Wembley game, Wenger commented on the array of options available to him:
“We have a massive squad of 24 players at the moment. There are also players on loan. It’s important to get the right dimension. We know each other better now and have a better balance in our team between attacking and defending. All the players have top, top quality which makes it very difficult for me to pick my best team. They all deserve to play.”
The temptation to shuffle his deck is understandable, yet Wenger surely knows this tie is not a foregone conclusion. Last season, Arsenal faced Championship opposition at this stage of the season and almost came unstuck.
When the Gunners trailed Wigan in last year’s semi-final, Wenger was arguably seven minutes away from his position at Arsenal becoming untenable. It looked set to be a seismic day in the history of the football club. However, Per Mertesacker spared the manager with a late equaliser, and the team went on to lift the trophy in similarly dramatic circumstances.
That close shave won’t have been forgotten. Arsenal are in far better shape a year on, but too many changes for this fixture could disrupt their impressive momentum. Arsenal have a full week off after this match, so can afford to name a strong line-up.
Wenger has already confirmed that Wojciech Szczesny will start in place of David Ospina. With that in mind, it’s probably worth keeping the first-choice central defensive pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny in place. That trio built up a good understanding during 2013/14, enabling Szczesny to end the season tied with Petr Cech for the Golden Glove award.
Full-back is in one area where Wenger may be able to safely rotate. Spanish pair Nacho Monreal and Hector Bellerin have been the first-choice selection in recent weeks, but Arsenal have a number of reliable alternatives available. At left-back, England international Kieran Gibbs could earn a first start since March 4th, while either Calum Chambers or the fit-again Mathieu Debuchy could come in on the opposite flank.
In midfield, Jack Wilshere will be pushing for a return to the starting line-up having been declared fit for selection. However, the Gunners have a terrific balance in the centre of the park at present, and Wenger will probably be keen to stick with that successful formula. Wilshere may have to content himself with a place on the substitutes bench.
There may be a major change upfront. Danny Welbeck was named ahead of Olivier Giroud in the previous round at Manchester United, and responded by netting the winning goal against his former club. Giroud might be the in-form striker in the Premier League, but it’d be no great surprise if Wenger sought to reward Welbeck by giving him his first game at centre-forward since that occasion. His pace and movement would provide Reading with a different kind of threat to deal with.
Reading may sit 18th in the Championship, but they remain capable of causing an upset. Arsenal will almost certainly make changes, but it’s essential they don’t damage their chances with too many changes. Everyone at the club will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the rollercoaster against Wigan.