It has finally arrived. Much like Easter, the annual Arsenal versus Hull City FA Cup tie always shows up sometime a couple of months after the new year. This year, the match falls on February 20th, this Saturday. Unfortunately for Arsenal, this date is not the most convenient fit into their busy schedule.
This match falls one week after a win of significant import in the title race against Leicester City, and three short days before the first leg of our Champions League match-up against Barcelona. As if that weren't enough, the schedule throws Manchester United at Old Trafford, Swansea City at the Emirates, and Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane at Arsenal in quick succession afterwards. With a massively important fixture list on the horizon, Arsene Wenger will have some tricky rotation decisions to make this weekend.
First off, I think it's a given that Mesut Ozil will be fully rested this weekend. He has not even made the bench in the other two FA Cup matches and I seriously doubt that will change this round.
I also think it's a given that Wenger will do some heavy rotation. With many players coming back from injury, this should be easier to do now that it has been all year. Mohamed Elneny, Joel Campbell, Mathieu Flamini, and Alex Iwobi should be in line for starting berths. The biggest questions for Wenger will be: who starts at striker, who starts at right back, and is Welbeck ready to start so soon after his recovery from injury?
After spending a considerable amount of time on the bench early in the season, Olivier Giroud has established himself as the first-choice striker for the squad, again, with Theo Walcott acting as a super-sub. Under normal circumstances, you might think that Theo would be in line for a start Saturday to rest Giroud. However, the upcoming mid-week match-up might cause the manager to rethink that strategy. In terms of the squad available at the boss' disposal and the level of competition, the Barcelona match is extremely similar to Bayern Munich at the Emirates in the fall. It seems highly probable that Arsenal will defend deep and attempt to break quickly on Tuesday, like they did against Bayern with Theo starting at center forward.
Though the goals came after Theo was taken off, the strategy led to a number of great first-half chances for Alexis Sanchez, Ozil, and Walcott. Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez are undoubtedly amazing, but there are potential cracks in the Barcelona defense that could be exploited by the directness, pace, and movement of Theo up top as opposed to the slower, more intricate Giroud. I would tend to lean towards starting Walcott Tuesday, but if I'm trying to predict what the manager will do I'll go on record of saying Theo starts Saturday and Giroud starts Tuesday.
Right back is another selection conundrum for the manager. Like many Arsenal selection crises, it's the result of an injury (or injuries, in this case) being compounded by a potentially short-sided transfer decision. With Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny both injured, Calum Chambers will have to start at centerback in the short term. Due to the loan move of Mathieu Debuchy, Chambers also happens to be our backup right back. This means Arsene has to choose between not resting Hector Bellerin or starting gulp Mathieu Flamini at right back. Honestly, I don't care about this match at all and want Hector to get as much rest as possible. That said, the manager has a history of rotating less than the fanbase desires so don't be surprised if Young Hector is in the starting XI Saturday.
Lastly, Wenger will have to decide if, after ten months on the sideline, Danny Welbeck is ready to start Saturday. While we're all still in Dreamland after his goal-scoring cameo on Sunday, it's also worth pointing out that he's played about 70 minutes in total (60 of those in a U21 match) since returning from injury. He wasn't even supposed to be in the squad this weekend but basically forced his way into the manager's plans, thankfully. While his recovery plan seemed to have previously included a heavy dose of U21 action prior to reintroduction into the senior side, clearly, there has been a shift. Is it a massive enough one for him to leap into the starting XI this weekend. I'm skeptical, but wouldn't be surprised if he plays an hour Saturday before being subbed off.
This is, in short, a big couple weeks for Arsenal; if they get the squad selection right, it could also be a great couple weeks.