Having followed Arsenal since the late 1990s, I have seen a lot of success come our way. I was fortunate enough to see many of Arsenal’s top players of the day on TV playing and winning important fixtures in that time, like Dennis Bergkamp, Tony Adams, Marc Overmars, Ray Parlour, Patrick Vieira… the list goes on. I see a few parallels that can be drawn between Arsenal’s current side and the team that Arsene assembled in the late 1990s. For one, both teams have at least one F.A. Cup winners’ medal – the only players that don’t have one at the time of writing this article are Francis Coquelin (who was away at Freiburg on loan) and the players that have joined the club in the past 12 months, namely David Ospina, Calum Chambers, Gabriel, Mathieu Debuchy and Alexis Sanchez. I am hoping that this will be rectified this weekend against Aston Villa at Wembley.
I think that, for any player at a big club, winning the first medal is probably the most difficult – most of Arsenal’s players will have an easier time of it mentally this season than last season when Arsenal played Hull and were 2 goals down in the opening 15 minutes. Hull went into that match with no fear or expectations and played that way for the opening 30 minutes or so, but you could see the nerves and expectations all over the Arsenal players and the one thing that ended that was the fantastic free kick that Santi Cazorla scored later in the first half. The only “new” player who will go into the match with no nerves is Alexis Sanchez, partially due to his personality on the pitch and that he has played in matches of similar magnitude and significance before for FC Barcelona.
As such, I am expecting a better performance this time out from the kick-off, hopefully with the last season’s Cup-winning players providing guidance and insight to the newer players before the match about the importance the F.A. Cup competition means to fans of English-based clubs in general, not just us Gooners. The F.A. Cup is the oldest Cup competition in the world, even though it may not have the cachet of the Premier League or the UEFA Champions League, it is one of only 4 trophies that teams in the Premier League can win in one season (the others being the Premier League, UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League and the Capitol One Cup) and it has a very high level of importance to fans of English clubs in general.
On to the actual match and potential line-ups, I hope Arsene Wenger has done some shuffling of the squad for this match. I’m hoping to see Theo Walcott played up top, as Villa aren’t a great defensive unit and his pace and ability to make runs and find gaps will terrify Okore and Vlaar and Shay Given isn’t the great reactionary goalkeeper that he once was, with age taking its toll on him. I am also hoping to not see Jack Wilshere or Aaron Ramsey being shunted out to the right, as this makes Arsenal play too narrow – Kieran Richardson will probably be the left full-back for Villa and he has experience and a decent turn of pace and playing either Wilshere or Ramsey out there will help him. Personally, I’d like to see Tomas Rosicky start on the right for us, as he moves the ball forward quicker than Wilshere or Ramsey and he almost always has good games in the F.A. Cup for us (just ask Sp*rs!). We can expect Alexis to line up on the left, but I’m not expecting a full 90 minutes from him as he looked a yard off the pace vs. West Brom last week, which can be expected as he has played almost every match this season with his hard-running, swashbuckling, energetic style. I expect Ozil to line up in the expected number 10 position behind Walcott and to hopefully supply passes of sufficient quality to create chances.
The most interesting will be the selection of the central midfielders. I’m sure Coquelin will start, as he is the most likely to be able to stem Villa’s supply line through the middle to Christian Benteke, most likely supplied by a combination of Tom Cleverly, Carlos Sanchez, the tricky Jack Grealish, Leandro Bacuna and Fabian Delph. It’s the position next to Coquelin that will be interesting – will it be Cazorla, Ramsey or Wilshere? Each have their own qualities. Oddly, of the three, Cazorla is probably the best defensively – his match intelligence is good and he always seems to be in the right place to clear a ball away from an opponent. Cazorla’s build-up play has also been solid but his passing in the final third hasn’t been fantastic recently. Ramsey has the ability to pass accurately from long range and keep running for the whole match, but his decision-making, particularly in the final third from goal-scoring positions, seems to be lacking occasionally, where he sometimes tries to over-elaborate and takes too many touches, allowing himself to be closed down too quickly. Wilshere will run at midfielders and defenders with the ball at his feet, drawing fouls and altering Villa’s defensive shape, making gaps for other players to run into – he also has the skill to score fantastic goals (e.g. last week vs. WBA and in the 2012-2013 season vs. Norwich – that slalom-like run and 1-2-1-2 with Giroud before scoring). For me I would like to see Wilshere to start next to Coquelin. I have no idea who Wenger will pick though!
Jack should start with Le Coq
Defensively, I think we all have a good idea of who will start – Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker and Bellerin. I reckon Debuchy will make the bench, along with Gabriel and possibly also Kieran Gibbs, any of whom may get Cup final appearances if Arsenal can get themselves into a strong winning position by the end of the 1st half. I hope that Bellerin can deal with Jack Grealish, who, like him, is a tricky, pacy customer. As for who the starting goalkeeper will be, I’m hoping for David Ospina over Szczesny, as Ospina is less likely to make a blunder and will be especially trying to atone for last week’s late almost-howler vs. West Brom from Craig Gardner, a former Villan.
So, my line-up: Ospina; Monreal, Koscielny, Mertesacker (Captain), Bellerin; Wilshere, Coquelin; Alexis, Ozil, Rosicky; Walcott.
Bench: Szczesny, Gibbs, Gabriel, Debuchy, Cazorla, Ramsey, Giroud
The first time I saw Dennis Bergkamp play was in 1996 – I started following Arsenal properly in 1998 after the World Cup. When Arsenal then signed Thierry Henry – a player I had seen in that World Cup win by France – as well as already having Vieira and Petit there, plus several English stars like Tony Adams, Martin Keown and David Seaman just cemented Arsenal as the club for me. There was very little football coverage in South Africa during the 1990s as rugby was (and still is) the dominant sport here.
I was not really ushered in any specific direction in terms of which club to support – I chose Arsenal myself. It’s only over the last 3 years that I have been able to watch matches regularly – we get excellent TV coverage of European football now and I try to watch all Arsenal matches live.