This weekend, Arsenal begin their defence of the FA Cup with a home tie against Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland. With the Mackems embroiled in a relegation battle at the foot of the Premier League table, Allardyce may be tempted to rest several key players for a fixture that cannot currently be considered a priority. Allardyce will not be alone in adopting that approach. In the opposite dugout, Arsene Wenger will also surely take the chance to rotate his depleted squad.
After four league games in quick succession over the frantic festive period, Wenger has already opted to give several of his stars a rest from training this week. The likes of Mesut Ozil have been afforded a lighter schedule in order to enable them to cope with Arsenal’s relentless programme.
Wenger may feel his team are through the very worst of it, but the reality is that there is no big let-up in the schedule any time soon. With Arsenal fighting it out for the Premier League title, every match takes on greater significance.
The fixture list doesn’t get much more kind in the next few weeks. After the Sunderland game, Arsenal face trips away to Stoke City and Liverpool before hosting Wenger’s bête noire, Chelsea. Gunners supporters will consider it entirely typical that the Blues are finding some semblance of form shortly before they’re forced to face Wenger’s men. The reality is that this cup tie represents the best — and arguably the only — opportunity for Wenger to rotate his team for some time.
One man almost certain to start is David Ospina. The Colombian goalkeeper was Wenger’s first-choice for the second half of the 2014/15 campaign, but has struggled for first team football since the summer arrival of Petr Cech. In the last few seasons, Wenger has used to the FA Cup to keep his reserve keepers sharp — there is nothing to suggest that will change this time around.
There are defenders who are due a game too. Kieran Gibbs will most likely get a rare chance to demonstrate his credentials instead of Nacho Monreal, while Gabriel Paulista’s excellent performance in the recent league game against Bournemouth should surely guarantee him a start. Wenger may also see fit to give Calum Chambers a game at right-back — most of his recent appearances have been in central roles, but with speculation over the future of Mathieu Debuchy it may be time for him to readjust to life on the flank.
In midfield, Mikel Arteta is available again after his latest injury. However, given his physical frailty it’s difficult to envisage him being asked to play 90 minutes. The burden on the lungs and legs of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini is likely to remain significant until reinforcements arrive in the shape of FC Basel’s Mohamed Elneny.
Back in the autumn, Arsenal restructured their attack to accommodate Theo Walcott’s speed and movement in a central position. However, the good form of Olivier Giroud has subsequently seen the Gunners revert to using the Frenchman as their focal points. Against Sunderland, there may be a chance for Wenger to once more try fielding the England international through the middle.
If any of Arsenal’s young Guns are likely to get a run-out, it’ll be on the wings. In recent games, Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide have both featured on the substitutes bench, and they’ll be hoping they’re finally granted the chance to play from the off. The inclusion of a bright young prospect would certainly cause ripples of excitement around the Emirates Stadium.
Arsenal, of course, want to progress and continue their campaign to retain the cup. However, this season more than many others, there is a genuine need to focus on the league. Arsenal must seize the chance to rest some of their weariest players if to sustain their title challenge.