Arsenal’s FA Cup match against Sunderland on Saturday presents an interesting interpretive choice.
There’s the historical angle, focusing on the club’s unparalleled success in the competition. With last May’s demolition of Aston Villa in the final, Arsenal became the most frequent winner of the FA Cup, and manager Arsène Wenger lifted the trophy for the sixth time, more than any other manager in the modern era.
This perspective also features the fillip the FA Cup has been to the club in recent years. After a decade without a title, Arsenal marked a true revival with the 3-2 win after extra time over Hull City in the 2014 Final. The joy of players, staff, and supporters worldwide was memorable and meaningful, and the performance set the stage for the team to master big occasions in 2015.
We therefore must acknowledge the influence the competition has had on Arsenal’s trajectory. Navigating the current cup campaign to a third consecutive trophy, a feat not accomplished since Blackburn Rovers did it in 1886, would seem a fitting next chapter in that narrative.
Wenger has paid homage to his own and Arsenal’s FA Cup record, while turning his gaze, as ever, to the challenge in front of them.
It’s a good challenge [to try to win three in a row], and we’ll take it on. We have the desire to do well and to do it again. Let’s see how we get on in the first test, and let’s deal with that. We have enough confidence, enough desire, so let’s turn up with a positive performance.(Arsenal.com)
Here Wenger is turning to the second angle of interpretation, the one focusing on the immediate. Arsenal are in position to grasp a bigger prize, the Premier League title, and face two difficult road matches in the eight days after Saturday’s cup contest—at Liverpool on Wednesday, January 13, and then at Stoke City on Sunday, January 17. Given the grueling schedule the team just endured over the holiday period, the FA Cup encounter looks less of a priority.
Sunderland has its own reasons for de-emphasizing Saturday’s match: The Black Cats are fighting for survival in the Premier League and have two daunting matches of their own, a trip to Swansea that could reshuffle the relegation deck and another visit to London against Tottenham, in the next week.
As a result, the speculation is that both sides will rest vital players on Saturday.
That will present opportunities for some squad players to stake claims to more first-team action and for a few first teamers to gain some form and confidence. Prominent in the latter group at Arsenal is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the subject of considerable jawboning as he experiences a difficult season. An energetic and intelligent performance against Sunderland may be just the thing to spark Oxlade-Chamberlain into contributions commensurate with his talent.
Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger uses youngsters Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. The pair of attackers has made the substitutes’ bench in recent Premier League fixtures due to the raft of first-team injuries, and Saturday’s contest seems an appropriate occasion to increase their involvement.
Wenger has been cagey about the scope of squad rotation, though. He has said “At the moment, I make two or three changes maximum,” while at the same time he’s described Reine-Adelaide as “mature enough to cope with the challenges of the Premier League, and he has technique as well.”
Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce has been far less coy. He has called the schedule “diabolical” and argued, “Don’t give me stick when I change the side at Arsenal.” Whether this is an adept feint or revealing only Saturday’s teamsheet will reveal.
Because identifying the starters is so difficult—and knowing each other isn’t straightforward for the makeshift teams, either—it’s tough to foresee the dynamics of the match. In general, Arsenal will probably enjoy more possession, while Sunderland tries to maintain its defensive organization and pose danger on the counterattack. Neither manager will want a replay, though, so the teams will attack to force a result.
If that means that an Arsenal player or two emerge with a more positive view of their skill and potential contribution, this match could become another memorable mark in the club’s FA Cup history.
Players to Watch:
Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. This match offers prime conditions for Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’ll go up against replacement defenders and midfielders unaccustomed to his speed and strength in a relatively low-pressure contest. He’s shown a knack for scoring in cup games as well.
Sunderland. Duncan Watmore. The speedy winger might be a regular starter that Allardyce sends out on Saturday as well. That’s because he hasn’t played a full season and poses a serious threat on the counterattack, as evidenced by his work in the sides’ Premier League encounter.