When Arsenal face Hull City in the FA Cup this weekend, they could be forgiven for feeling a little distracted. Looming on the horizon is a tie with Barcelona, the side currently bewitching the continent with their beguiling brand of football.
Fortunately for Arsene Wenger, he’s in the unfamiliar position of having plenty of good options available to enable him to rotate his starting XI. There are a couple of long-term absentees such as Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla who are yet to return, but for the most part the Arsenal squad is in a far healthier state than a few weeks ago.
That’s particularly true in attack, where Wenger has been delivered a huge boost by the return of Danny Welbeck. The Hull match was initially earmarked for his comeback, but his performances in training were so impressive that Wenger accelerated his rehab schedule to include him in the squad for the Leicester game. That decision, as the Arsenal fans are all gleefully aware, paid huge dividends.
Welbeck is now certain to start the cup game. Having made such a dramatic impact on his return, he’ll be full of confidence and eager to start his first match in more than 10 months. The England international should form part of an exciting front three alongside Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell, both of whom have been relegated to the substitute’s bench by the return of Alexis Sanchez and the surprise promotion of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It will be intriguing to see which of Walcott and Welbeck Wenger chooses to deploy down the middle. Prior to his injury, Welbeck was principally being used as wide player, where the Gunners could benefit from his tremendous work-rate and defensive awareness. Furthermore, it was Welbeck’s injury that played some part in prompting Wenger to convert Walcott into a centre-forward. The decision over who plays centrally against Hull will give some indication as to the hierarchy Wenger holds in his head when it comes to naming his starting striker.
In midfield, Mesut Ozil is certain to be afforded a rest. That could mean another opportunity for Alex Iwobi, who impressed in the last round against Burnley. The young Nigerian has already been entrusted the prized No. 10 position on a couple of occasions this season, and will be eager to seize another chance to impress.
Behind him, Wenger may hand a start to January signing Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian international has had a relatively limited impact since joining from Basel, with Wenger seemingly keen to let him acclimatise at an appropriate pace before thrusting him regularly into action. However, a cup tie against lower league opposition seems like a good chance for him to get some more minutes under his belt. He may well be partnered by Mathieu Flamini, who has lost his place to Francis Coquelin for the Leicester game.
Those changes would allow Wenger to field an entirely fresh front six for the Barcelona game. He doesn’t have quite so many options in defence — the departure of Mathieu Debuchy on loan and an untimely injury to Gabriel Paulista have reduced his options there. The Brazilian will be particularly disappointed, as he appeared to have edged ahead of Per Mertesacker in Wenger’s thoughts when it came to picking his team to face Barca.
Nevertheless, the Gunners boss can still bring in Kieran Gibbs and Calum Chambers to allow Nacho Monreal and one of his centre-backs some recovery time. He’s also likely to make a switch in goal, giving David Ospina a game in place of Petr Cech.
Despite a raft of changes, that’s still an Arsenal side that ought to be good enough to beat Hull. For the first time in a while, the Gunners have the ability to rotate without too much risk.