Arsenal vs. Manchester City: Arsene Wenger Must Find the Right Balance
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Fifteen years ago, this was unheard of, as many teams, including the most successful ones, went through multiple competitions and entire seasons using the same group of players. Often less than 20. To put that number in some perspective, Arsenal have already used 36 players this season!
Coming back to today's clash against big-spending City, Wenger must face a selection nightmare from hell.
There's one school of thought that says, "Pick your strongest squad and try and win the game to keep the winning momentum going." There's a completely contrary way of thinking which suggests, "Forget the Carling Cup, it doesn't count anyway. Just use your youngsters and reserves."
For Arsene Wenger, it's almost a no-win situation.
If he picks his first 11, and one of his main players in the "red zone" (that's a new term this season) gets injured, irrespective of the result, he's going to get slated.
If he puts out a reserve team and they are on the wrong end of a mauling, as is likely, he will be criticized for "disrespecting the only trophy Arsenal could realistically have won."
That obviously leaves us with the middle path, and it is this route that I suggest he follows tonight.
Left to me, here's how I believe the squad MUST line up.
1. Goalkeeper: Wojciech Szczesny
The new "Safe Hands"
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My selection of Wojciech Szczesny as Arsenal's goalkeeper tonight is going to surprise many.
But give it a thought. He's a keeper. And he isn't exactly an overworked one, given that Arsenal always have the lion's share of possession and barely concede a shot on target. Most importantly, he's much better than his replacement, Lukasz Fabianski.
There's no reason whatsoever to rest Szczesny tonight. Too bad if Fabianski has a big sulk as a result, but his countryman has more personality, more presence, more consistency and far more ability. He is a better organizer, and certainly a better motivator. His presence can be the difference between winning and losing. And he is certainly not in the "red zone."
This is no time for charity, Arsene. And no time for flappy hands.
I want Wojciech!
On the bench: Lukasz Fabianski
2. Defense: Johan Djourou, Laurent Koscielny, Sebastien Squillaci, Ignasi Miquel
Laurent Koscielny must be restored to the center of defense tonight
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It would be great to give Nico Yennaris a game against one of Europe's deepest squads, but at the risk of repeating myself, this is not a benefit match.
Thomas Vermaelen and Andre Santos have played a majority of recent games, as has Per Mertesacker. Give them a rest. But the back four I've named should be pretty fresh tonight. Sebastien Squillaci and Ignasi Miquel have barely played this season. Johan Djourou, too, has started just six games in all competitions.
Laurent Koscielny, on the other hand, has had quite a bit to do this season, but he sat out last Saturday's London derby against Fulham, so he should be well rested. This teams needs a defensive leader, someone who's been in the first team regularly and possesses match sharpness. Someone who will be aggressive, and snap at City's heels. That man is Koscielny.
On the bench, I would have Vermaelen and Santos, should they need to enter the fray in the second half and add some leadership and experience.
3. Midfield: Francis Coquelin, Abou Diaby, Andrey Arshavin
Show us the way, Andrey
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Put those eyebrows down!
Let's do this one by one.
I don't think we should go in with two defensive midfielders. That will send out a negative message to the team, and an encouraging one to the opposition. So it's just one midfield "anchor".
Alex Song has played every game of consequence since he came back from his three-match Joey Barton-stamp ban. So it's a straight choice between Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong, and based on what I've seen this season, the Frenchman gets the nod. He also has a full season's first team experience with French side Lorient behind him, and this has undoubtedly made him a better player.
Along side him, in the "Mikel Arteta" position, I will select Abou Diaby (if fit). Diaby is Arsenal's forgotten man. He has spent more time away from the squad than being part of it thanks to the after-effects of a horrendous two-footed Dan Smith tackle on his ankle at Sunderland in 2006. The Frenchman is a proven (though inconsistent) performer. He needs games, and this is an ideal opportunity to continue his rehabilitation.
Further afield, while most pundits will plump for Yossi Benayoun, I will nominate Andrey Arshavin. The little Russian enjoyed his best game this season in exactly that position against Bolton in the previous round. He enjoys a free role, without defensive responsibilities, and I believe he will do well in that position.
On the bench: Emmanuel Frimpong, Tomas Rosicky (if fit), else Aaron Ramsey
4. Attack: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Marouane Chamakh, Yossi Benayoun
Another chance for "The Ox" to shine
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This was possibly the easiest set of selections to make.
Let's begin with The Ox. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain made a whirlwind start to his Arsenal career. With two goals in three starts, he was heralded as the next big thing. Some experts went on to suggest that Theo Walcott's place was in jeopardy for both club and country.
I'm certain Arsene Wenger brought him back down to earth fairly quickly, but tonight is the right time to unleash him again. He must play on Arsenal's right wing. City will undoubtedly play Kolarov at left back, and while he is great going forward, the same cannot be said about his defensive nous. Chamberlain can and must make the most of his opportunity tonight, and be the fountain of creativity he can be.
At the center forward position, it's a toss-up between Marouane Chamakh and Ju Young Park, and I will go for the Moroccan. He has scored a dismal two goals this year, and has lacked quality and enthusiasm. But I was encouraged by his brief cameo against Fulham. He seemed revitalized, played with tremendous energy and didn't keep giving the ball away.
It may have been a flash in the pan, but I'll (yet again) give him the benefit of doubt, and start with him in the middle. He won't be up against Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany, and may find some joy if he plays his cards right.
On the left wing, I will select the experienced Israeli Yossi Benayoun. Arsene Wenger has rightly said that he hasn't been able to give Benayoun the chances he deserves, but he will put that right tonight. Playing him on the left will ensure that Ignasi Miquel, at left back, gets some additional protection.
I have never been Benayoun's biggest admirer in his West Ham, Liverpool and Chelsea days, but having watched him a lot more this season, I can clearly see the quality and discipline he brings to the table. I don't know about you, but I thought he was absolutely fantastic when he came on against Borussia Dortmund.
On the bench: Ju Young Park, Gervinho.
No Robin van Persie. Not in the first 11, not on the bench, not even in the stands! Wrap him in cotton wool and send him to a spa.
5. The Final Line-Up
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So here's how we'd stack up, if I was selecting the team:
First 11: Szczesny; Djourou, Miquel, Squillaci, Koscielny; Coquelin, Diaby, Arshavin; Chamberlain, Chamakh, Benayoun
Substitutes: Fabianski, Santos, Vermaelen, Frimpong, Rosicky (Ramsey), Park, Gervinho
Not sure what you think, but as far as I'm concerned, more than enough to put away City's second string.
Come on, you Gunners!