There are worse things than a hard draw in the FA Cup. Arsenal play Tottenham Hotspur this afternoon, at home, knowing that of the 63 possible opponents few would be more dangerous, or would take more out of their drained players. But the difficulty and importance of the match should help to focus minds, which has been a problem before.
What it also does, though, is present Arsène Wenger with a problem with which he has struggled in the past: just how important is the FA Cup, and how far should he risk his title challenge in pursuit of it?
Last year, in the fifth round, Arsenal were gifted a home tie against Michael Appleton’s Blackburn Rovers. They failed to focus and were beaten 1-0, their best shot at a trophy gone again. In a difficult season, it was almost as bad as it got.
Arsenal are a better team now, but they will still certainly need to fight to beat Tim Sherwood’s revitalised Spurs. That requirement is no bad thing. “We have not drawn a small team,” Wenger said last night, “so we are warned that it will just be another top-level game. That is the advantage of having a big opponent, your team is focused naturally.”
Wenger knows that the Blackburn result last year was not his finest hour. With seven changes, the wrong message was sent, and not for the first time. “In the case of Blackburn at home, you always say to your players, ‘Be careful’, and they think, ‘OK, if you do your job you win your match and you go through.’
“We were a bit unlucky, because they only had one shot and they scored. After 15 years we had never gone out against a team from a lower division, so that was a good learning process. But that is not the danger tomorrow. The players know this will be a big game.”
Arsenal were not helped that day by the looming prospect of the arrival of Bayern Munich, three days after Blackburn. This year, at least, they have eight days off before a rather less daunting game against Aston Villa.
“We had won against Swansea before [in the third round], and that was a tough game, and also Bayern was just behind. The players thought, ‘Ok, let’s just win, let’s just get through,’ because there is a massive game after that. That is a natural reaction but it doesn’t work like that.”
Arsenal were beaten that day by a Blackburn side who had won four of their previous 14 Championship games and were stuck in mid-table. It was the seventh game of Appleton’s 15-match tenure at Ewood Park, and yet they still had enough to win at the Emirates.
“It was not only a low point in the season, it was also something that put us in a very, very bad position to play against Bayern,” said Wenger. Arsenal were outplayed in midweek and beaten 3-1 by the eventual European champions. “You could see when we started the game against Bayern that everybody was low in confidence, and it cost us a lot. It was a big shock and we had not had time to recover because three days later we played Bayern at home and we were not ourselves.”
Which is not to say, though, that this game matters quite as much as their remaining 18 league matches, or that the damage to morale will be as heavy should they go out. Arsenal are in the title race, and that matters most. “This season is different because we are fighting in the Premier League. Last year when we played Blackburn it was one of the remaining targets of the season, but this year, because we are in a strong position, it will not stop us from focusing on the Premier League. Still, it is better to go through.”
So when Wenger says he will play “the strongest available possible team”, he does not mean that he will use players at risk of an injury. “The players have played many games so that means that if I’m told a player is on the fringe in muscular terms, I might rest him. But my purpose is to pick the strongest team.”
Wenger will not be able to pick Nicklas Bendtner, who injured his ankle scoring against Cardiff City on New Year’s Day, meaning Lukas Podolski will continue up front. Bendtner has been sent for a scan on his ankle, and if he will be out for more than three weeks, Wenger is likely to be forced into the transfer market for a new striker.
Olivier Giroud has recovered from his ankle injury but sickness means that Wenger gave him only a “10 per cent” chance of playing today. Mesut Özil, who, like Giroud, was very keen to play in this game, is likely to be “short”.
Those two are unlikely to be risked but even then Wenger has some difficult decisions to make. Theo Walcott has started five consecutive games since returning from injury and now would be as good a time as any to rest him. Jack Wilshere, who still needs careful management, enjoyed one of his best performances of recent months against Cardiff but that was only three days ago.
If Wenger started Wilshere and Walcott and they were injured, affecting the club’s crucial forthcoming title challenge, the fans would be furious. But if he did not play them – and Tomas Rosicky or even Serge Gnabry were to come in – only for his side to lose this game, against their fiercest rivals, and risk their long trophy drought ticking up towards a decade, it may be even worse.
Arsenal’s cup exits have felt traumatic in recent years, especially the further away they get from their last trophy in 2005. Their 2-0 loss at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals in 2011 immediately followed their Capital One Cup final defeat and their Champions League exit in Barcelona, triggering a desperate spiral in the Premier League too, in which they won just two of their last 10 games.
The same thing happened in 2007-08, their last authentic title challenge. Arsenal were five points clear of United with 12 games left when they went to Old Trafford for an FA Cup fifth-round tie. Wenger left Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini on the bench and United tore them to pieces, winning 4-0. It shattered confidence, and the next week came the infamous 2-2 draw at St Andrews, in which Eduardo broke his leg. Another crisis, another spiral, Arsenal won one of their next eight and United took the title.
Wenger is clearly a fan of the FA Cup. As he was quick to point out yesterday, he has won it four times. “That means I always put the effort in and I am very keen to do it again.” No one would doubt that Wenger would like to win it; whether he will go all-out with today’s team selection is a different matter. Fatigue and injuries might say that he cannot afford to. But the fragility and crises following recent exits might suggest that he cannot afford to do anything else.