Up until this point in Arsenal’s prolific season, the obvious talking point for every outlet and pundit has been the inevitable clash between the Gunners and reigning Premier League title holders Manchester City. Arsenal have handled every hurdle and navigated every tough stretch of fixtures to date, but still, there is the grim specter of City, looming ominously, ready to crash the party and give the Gunners a reality check. At least, that seems to be the common narrative.
On Friday, Mikel Arteta faces off with his mentor Pep Guardiola for the first of three potentially season-defining matches, with this match coming in the 4th round of the FA Cup, as the Gunners look to secure a record 15th FA Cup title. While other clubs got the benefit of drawing some of the remaining lower league opponents, it was almost poetic that Arsenal would draw City. From the standpoint of intrigue, this couldn’t be a better matchup. From a “realistic chance to win the cup” standpoint...not so much.
This cup tie is one that presents a huge decision for Mikel Arteta. Arsenal’s league campaign has the Gunners in 1st with a 5 point lead and a match in hand over City. Few, if any, expected this, and with 19 matches played, the reality that Arsenal can actually, maybe, possibly win the league is palpable. The team is largely healthy, has made moves in the transfer window, and are in scintillating form.
Cups are great opportunity for clubs to find success, and the FA Cup has been Arsenal’s only real means of staying relevant over the last decade. But facing the direct rivals to the league in the FA Cup relatively early in the competition means that Arteta could, potentially, make a tactical decision to sacrifice the cup for a less congested fixture list and a better chance at maintaining the league lead.
On the other hand, this could also be the other opportunity needed for Arteta to show that this Arsenal side are not just capturing lightning in a bottle in the league. Deep runs in the FA Cup, Europa League, and the PL are all chances for Arsenal to emphatically announce to the world that they are back, and intend to remain there. The big question mark will remain - can Arsenal maintain their momentum AND player health as cups pick back up?
City are, as the kids say, built different. Besides Pep’s coaching acumen, their depth has been their strength. They have managed to maintain world-class a roster replete with top talent that smothers teams down the stretch. They are relentless, deep, and talented. While nobody would fault either Arsenal or City if they trotted out youthful sides, City won’t. That’s not how they do things.
All that being said, I fully expect Arteta to treat this match seriously. I can’t imagine he sees anything to gain by throwing this match and sending in the kids. If they lose, it doesn’t ruin the season by any stretch. But if they win? There’s certainly something to gain there. However, I don’t expect the typical starting 11, but I can foresee the midfield remaining unchanged. We have depth in the defense enough to rotate in the likes of Tierney and Tomiyasu without it being detrimental.
Arsenal’s record at the Etihad is less than promising, but, as with every match this season, this Arsenal team has defied expectations at every turn and doesn’t give up without a fight. This should prove to be quite a telling matchup.
WHO: Arsenal at Manchester City
WHAT: The FA Cup 4th round
WHEN: Friday, January 27th, 3:00pm EST/12:00pm PST/8:00pm BST
WHERE: The Etihad Stadium, Manchester
HOW TO WATCH: Streaming on ESPN+
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