Arsenal look east / Leave the Cup alone

Will concentration be an issue after our big night on Wednesday? It has been for me. If I’ve watched van Persie’s and Arshavin’s goals once, I’ve watched them a hundred times. I’ve chewed the game over with anyone who cares to listen (and some who don’t), I’ve digested all the podcasts, I’ve modded my iPhone wallpaper (thanks Gunnerblog) and I’ve changed its ringtone to ‘Goal – van Persie Goal, van Persie Goal’ (thanks Arseblog). I have responded to all those well-wishers who texted, DM’d and rung me to congratulate me. Like I played a part! I merely shouted and jumped up and down and hugged other men and women. I have been on YouTube and the interwebs. Short of building a shrine in my front room, there’s not a lot more I can do. It needs to stop.

Today’s we’re off to Brisbane Road for our fifth round tie and it’s a classic cup match-up. The O’s are doing well and will suspect – justifiably – that some of our better players will be given a breather today. As Arseblogger said yesterday, fighting on four fronts is an almost impossible task, so rotation has to happen. Wenger needs to get the balance right, but I would still expect the likes of Squillaci, Gibbs, Denilson, Bendtner, Chamakh and Rosicky to start today. Will they all start? Quite possibly, with a strong bench to call on should things need to change.

Leave the cup alone

Incidentally, debutant Mike Parry on 606 last night played devil’s advocate – I give him the benefit of the doubt because if he actually believed it, I despair – by claiming the FA Cup needs to be brought from its malaise by seeding. His argument was that by having non-Premier League teams in the final never makes for a good game, so on that basis some kind of seeding needs to occur to prevent it from happening. The public wants to see the FA Cup final between the country’s biggest teams, he said. I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. As if cup finals between the top teams are special? The biggest clubs getting to the final more frequently is what’s making it less interesting, not more interesting. Liverpool v Man Utd in 1996? When was the last classic cup final between the ‘top four’?

And as if seeding as a concept works – look at the Champions League group stages. It’s got to the point where it’s more ‘valuable’ (financially) to stay in the Premier League than have a run in the cup, and it’s more ‘valuable’ (financially) to come fourth to get into the Champions League. Where is the glory of actually winning something?

I don’t pretend to have the answers but for my money it might be improved by the following:

1. Leave the format alone. Scrap replays, weeknight finals, more random TV-driven kick-offs? Just stop it. Ideas like this will kill it. We need to keep replays, because they are the essence of the cup. It gives smaller clubs a potential pay day and it motivates them. Leeds away was one of the most enjoyable games of our season. Leave it alone.
2. Include the FA Cup as part of all clubs’ season tickets. It works at Arsenal. Nobody complains. It might raise crowds elsewhere. And on top of that, if it’s a game the fans have to purchase, managers/chairmen might be forced to take it more seriously.
3. Make it more worthwhile financially. The winner currently gets £1,800,000. It shouldn’t be about the money, but seeing that it is, raise the pot given to those who get to the latter stages – QFs onwards – and it might just readjust some priorities.

Anyway, that’s my tupp’orth. I love the FA Cup, always have, always will. Don’t tinker too much with it, I say.

Come on you rip-roarers.

Monday night squad ramblings

And so it came to pass that Arsenal’s midweek Anglian aberration was put to the sword with a fine performance at Upton Park on Saturday. There’s nothing like winning your next game to forget about losing your last one, and I’m in a forgetful enough mood now to have perked up no end. The equilibrium is once again balanced… for now. (Aha! I had to add that in).

Plenty of positives too, with the hitherto largely blank-firing van Persie scoring twice, Theo bagging a fine goal and creating another, and a return to battle for our strongest midfield five – Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Nasri and Walcott.

About Theo: His goal on Saturday, his tenth of the season, means he has scored the same number of goals mid-way through this season as he did throughout the previous two seasons combined. I think that deserves, at the very least, a manly handshake.

To me, Saturday also highlighted that within the one squad there is a clear first XI bubbling to the top. I know I know – that’s always the case. But I find it endlessly fascinating to see a football team evolve, how fate deals some players bad hands and form dictates the fortunes of others. This season’s biggest losers so far are Almunia, Vermaelen, Diaby, Arshavin, Bendtner and Denilson, all of whom would have hoped to make more of an impact, one way or another, than they have done so far.

In their place we see Fabianski, Szczesny, Djourou, Koscielny, Walcott, Wilshere and Nasri. Only Nasri was a definite starter last year, Walcott too, albeit to a lesser degree.

For my money, our best available starting XI at the moment is Szczesny, Clichy, Koscielny, Djourou, Sagna, Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Walcott, Nasri and van Persie. A bit harsh on Chamakh perhaps, and I can see Gibbs, fitness permitting, giving Clichy a good run for his money. I’ve also stuck my neck out with Szczesny because to me he looks the real deal, but I concede that his lack of experience might make that pick a little premature.

There’s good competition in some areas but less in others, and there’s no doubt – I say this as I don my Hat of Perfection – we could do with the ‘second string’ pushing their first-choice teammates harder. That they are ‘second string’ should be motivation enough, but it’s easier said than done.

That’s the way things go. Our first choice XI has evolved in just one year – four changes (in the absence of Vermaelen), perhaps five if you were to include Theo – and who’s to say that come January 2012, it won’t have changed again? It almost certainly will have.

There were eight changes from ‘my’ first XI against Leeds, five against Ipswich, one against West Ham.

We know already that Szczesny will start in goal at Elland Road, but I wonder how far from the above XI Wenger will deviate on Wednesday?

We’re fighting on four fronts. It’s a tough call.