Friday, February 19, 2016

Match Preview, Arsenal v Hull City: Win and Advance

Arsenal’s Last 16 FA Cup encounter with Hull City gives the aesthetic purists another occasion to miss the point.

Much is expected of the Gunners when they face theoretically inferior opposition at home in this competition. Not only must they win, they must do so with ease and style.

So when the team did not glide past Premier League strugglers Sunderland in the 3rd Round or Championship side Burnley in the 4th Round, a large contingent of supporters and observers criticized the players and managerial staff. This reaction ignored the nature and objective of knockout competition.

In one-off contests, the only thing that matters is to win. That’s especially been the case for Arsenal in these early FA Cup rounds because the matches have come when the team hasn’t been in top form. Its January doldrums, featuring three weeks without a win, accompanied by the unfamiliar lineups fielded in the Cup, rendered style irrelevant. Victory was paramount.

The scenario is slightly different for Saturday’s meeting with Hull City. The Gunners have won two league matches in succession, including the inspirational comeback over league leaders Leicester City on Sunday. Rather than using the FA Cup to return to winning habits, Arsenal can now see it as a way to accelerate their momentum.

A victory can put the Gunners into a confident mood as they face a crucial and busy two weeks. First, there’s the visit of seemingly indomitable Barcelona in Tuesday’s Champions League Round of 16. The following Sunday, they commence a seven-day league gantlet at Manchester United, followed by a midweek home match against Swansea, and closed with a trip across North London to take on their traditional and (whisper it) title rivals Tottenham.

Hull City have an even busier schedule, having won at Blackburn on February 13th and drawn with Brighton on February 16th, and facing matches at Ipswich Town on Tuesday the 23rd and against Sheffield Wednesday on Friday the 26th.

As a result, manager Steve Bruce won’t send his first choice, Championship-leading starting XI onto the Emirates pitch on Saturday. “Making changes is the only option I’ve got,” he said.

This means the Tigers’ very good performances—producing the third-highest goals total while conceding fewer than all but one other team in the Championship—may not be all that relevant. One theme that might be worth watching on Saturday is Hull’s attention to high-quality shots on goal. They’ve scored more often than any other Championship side from shots within the opposition penalty area.

That’s been a focus of Arsenal, too. But the Gunners’ biggest threat inside the area, center forward Olivier Giroud, isn’t likely to play on Saturday. Instead, the speedy duo of Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck, along with two players who’ve displayed a taste for the longer-range shot, Joel Campbell and Mohamed Elneny, will probably get starts.

It will be interesting to see how these players combine, particularly in the transitions from attack to defense to attack. With the speed of Walcott and Welbeck, Arsenal may well press Hull’s makeshift defense in an effort to force turnovers. That’s been an approach employed by manager Arsène Wenger at home, particularly when the right players are available and the opposition seems vulnerable.

Although this choice of style would be interesting, it won’t carry too much importance. What will matter on Saturday, as with all knockout matches, is the victory.

Key Matchup

Alex Iwobi against Hull City’s holding midfielders. The newest addition to Arsenal’s first-team squad has caught the eye in his appearances in this competition. Taking on the playmaker responsibilities from the Premier League’s top assist man Mesut Özil is a daunting prospect for a 19-year-old, but Iwobi has displayed the quickness of feet and thought to continue making Arsenal dangerous.

Despite manager Steve Bruce’s priority on rotating his outfit, Hull City will probably feature two experienced figures in the center of midfield, from the trio of Jake Livermore, Tom Huddlestone, and David Meyler. Livermore and Meyler, in particular, are physical, and Iwobi’s ability to deal with those attentions could determine how creative and effective Arsenal will be on the whole.

Where to Worry

Hull City possess wily wide players, including Sam Clucas, Sone Aluko, and Ahmed Elmohamady. They can dribble at isolated fullbacks and find teammates in dangerous positions farther forward. Arsenal will need to coordinate defensive coverage to minimize this threat.

Match Verdict

Hull will be diligent and canny defensively and will test Arsenal’s patience. In the end, though, the Gunners’ speed will lead to a similar outcome to those of the clubs’ two FA Cup meetings since May 2014, an Arsenal victory.

Players to Watch

Arsenal. Theo Walcott. Walcott broke his scoring drought with the critical equalizer against Leicester City on Sunday. He’ll likely start this match at the tip of Arsenal’s attack, where his speed will concern the Hull City back line. If he and Danny Welbeck can synchronize their movements, expect at least one of them to hurt Hull with a goal.

Hull City. Nick Powell. The Manchester United loanee gets a chance to jumpstart his career at Hull City, and he’ll be looking to impress in his debut.

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