On the heels of our magnificent midweek Champions League first leg win over Barcelona, we headed into FA Cup weekend with a tricky away tie against League One mid-table side Leyton Orient. This was considered tricky primarily because, as we have already seen on more than one occasion this season, we tend to struggle against lower league opposition. Another complicating factor was our heavy run of fixtures: Champions League first leg tie versus Barcelona, this FA Cup tie, midweek league fixture versus Stoke City, Carling Cup Final the following Sunday versus Birmingham City. That is four fixtures in four different competitions packed into a twelve day period. In light of this punishing schedule, squad rotation at some point was inevitable, and this is the only logical fixture in which to do it. So much of the pre-match anticipation was regarding how many players Arsene would rest for this fixture…
Let me state up from that I do not believe in rotating more than half the squad for any one match – unless injuries/suspensions leave no other options – at this point in the season. My personal preference is to see us give our best in every single competition and try and win every one – something that is difficult to do with mass changes to the side.
If I were in charge – not that I ever will be – I would approach a match such as this by looking to make no more than four changes to the starting lineup: say goalkeeper, one defender, one midfielder, and one forward. Then, as things evolve, I would look to use my three substitutes to get additional first eleven players some rest, and give some match minutes to other second eleven players. While this approach is usually dependent upon how the match unfolds, it gives opportunity for rotation, while maintaining continuity of performance and effort. When a full ten positions are rotated – such as today – should we really be surprised that what we saw this afternoon was a poor, poor imitation of our real side?
Regardless of my feelings on this issue, the call was Arsene’s and he duly made ten changes to the side. One of the players restored to the side is a first eleven regular (Sagna) who was suspended for the midweek tie, but otherwise only Song remained from the eleven that lined up against Barcelona.
In came Almunia, Gibbs, Squillaci, Miguel (making his initial first team appearance), Sagna, Denilson, Song, Rosicky, Arshavin, Chamakh, and Bendtner. We had a strong bench available with Szczesny, Clichy, Koscielny, Eboue, Cesc, Samir and Jack.
My confidence dropped when I saw who was going to start. In particular, I was concerned that Song and Denilson together would leave the midfield devoid of creativity, particularly considering Rosicky’s dire form. I was also concerned with the decision to start Miguel alongside Squillaci. I understand we have to start the former somewhere, and if we were going to do it any time soon, this was the fixture to do so. But I would much rather he started alongside a better defender than Squillaci, either JD or Koscielny, whomever could cope with the extra fixture better.
I can probably save myself the keystrokes and save you the time it takes to read a couple of paragraphs by saying that we did not cover ourselves in glory. Almunia sent pulses through the roof after only a minute or so, fumbling Dawson’s low shot – fortunately no red shirt was on hand to capitalize. We dominated possession, as expected, but the midfield provided little creativity or service, with Song and Denilson both sloppy and careless with the ball. Of the two, I thought Denilson was actually the better player this afternoon, with Song a huge, huge disappointment. It appeared to me that both he and Bendtner exuded an “I am above this” air about themselves and their work. Arshavin put in a good 90 minutes of effort, even if he was not so effective.
I thought Chamakh brought the right attitude, but the wrong quality. He headed tamely at Orient keeper Jones early, and then shot wide of an open goal from a low Gibbs cross late in the first half. The longer the match went on, the more peripheral he seemed to become. When Robin, Arshavin and Bendtner went through similar spells, Arsene stuck with them and they were able to sort things out. The difference for me, however, is they were able to get going playing with and getting service from the likes of Cesc, Samir and Jack. Chamakh and the other forwards had to feed off scraps from our unbalanced, out-of-form midfield. Bendtner produced a couple of lazy, wayward shots and Arshavin tested Jones with a first-time shot, but we produced little as we went into the break scoreless.
Eight minutes in to the second half, and we finally made the breakthrough, as Bendtner produced a good cross for Rosicky to head (!) the ball into the net, his first goal for us since God-knows-when…I had hoped that would cue a deluge of shots and a couple more goals so we could relax and play out the remainder of the game. But it didn’t. By falling behind, Orient needed to take some risks if they wanted to get anything from this, and they did. 15 minutes after our goal, Rosicky should have killed this match off. A good move involving Bendtner and Arshavin in the buildup saw our Czech midfielder force Jones into a very good save. The ball rebounded back to Rosicky, but he could only send it right at the keeper. With about eight minutes left, Orient worked a good move down the right, and Revell smashed a shot off Squillaci’s face. Orient players absurdly appealed for a penalty, despite the ball clearly striking our defender’s face, not hand. Nevertheless, Squil probably did not know much about that one.
With three minutes remaining, we let another chance to put this away slip, as Arshavin struck the far post with a shot across the face of goal. A minute later we paid the price, as Gibbs and Miguel stood of substitute Tehoue, allowing him through to shoot under Almunia and equalize, helped by some shoddy goalkeeping from the man who still wears the number 1 on his jersey. When our second team has previously struggled and conceded goals, Arsene usually responded by bringing on Cesc and one other first eleven player to try and retrieve the situation, he did no such thing today and Orient survived the final minutes of regulation and four minutes of injury time to earn a replay at the Emirates on March 2nd. That will be excellent for them, as they stand to rake in a bumper payday, but is probably the last thing we need right now.
So an already congested fixture list got even more congested. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty, as they say. But I will also say that I was concerned when I saw the starting eleven Arsene named; I thought there were too many changes and not enough balance. Ninety plus minutes later, I think it is reasonable to ask just what Arsene accomplished with these changes. Yes, nine of our first choice eleven got a Sunday of rest. But will some of them still be able to rest on Wednesday, March 2nd? If we fall behind early to, say, a deflected goal or Almunia howler (easily foreseeable), how many of our first eleven will need to come on to turn it around? If Arsene finally agrees that Song and Denilson together in midfield simply do not work, then surely either Cesc or Jack will start? Can we afford to have Miguel and Squillaci in the same defence? Or Chamakh and Bendtner as two of our front three? For many of our starters, I think we may have just traded a Sunday off for a Wednesday at work.
We did get many of our second/third choice players rare starts and ninety minutes of action. Considering the performance, how many of these players do you think feel good about performance and effort? I wonder what Chamakh’s confidence is like now after his ineffective – often irrelevant – ninety minutes? Al – regardless of how any of us feel about him – is our second choice goalkeeper. If Szczesny should get injured, he will start for us – on today’s evidence, would you trust him in the big matches we have on the horizon? I wonder how he feels about where he is after these just completed 90 minutes.
My point is that we got these players minutes, but by lumping them all together, instead of responsibly mixing and matching with in-form, first team regulars, we may have done more harm to many players confidence than good to their “sharpness”…This is one of the biggest reasons I am not a fan of these mass changes that Arsene sometimes makes. Yesterday, Man United featured a similar massively changed side at home against non-league Crawley Town and they struggled to a 1-0 win that many consider harsh on their opponents.
We are no different; we struggle as well when we make so many changes. But this goes back to my original point – is it really necessary to make all these changes? Confidence and momentum are two of the most important ingredients in any successful side; these elements are often the first to disappear when we completely change our sides, regardless of the opposition. If we want to sustain our momentum, keep confidence flowing through the squad, and go from strength to strength, we simply cannot afford to make so many unforced changes to our side. In my opinion, that is…
Unless, of course, winning this competition is not really a priority after all. Arsene has said that we will go for it in all competitions on several occasions…Just this week he was quoted saying we have a chance to win four trophies this season. But I am starting to wonder if this desire to “go for it” on all fronts has not given away to prioritizing rotation with upcoming matches in mind, and a tacit, unspoken understanding that not having to play any more FA Cup matches would not necessarily be such a bad thing…If this is anywhere close to reality, then we got the worst of both worlds today – not out of this competition, and having to deal with another fixture jammed into an already congested calendar.
Let me quickly say well done to Leyton Orient FC. They were not overawed by our side, competed well in the first half, did not give up when we finally scored and wasted a couple of good chances to add to the goal, kept competing and ultimately got a deserved (I thought) late equalizer. Regardless of my complaints about our starting eleven, it is still packed with several international-caliber players – including a couple of national team Captains. Orient never appeared overawed to me and looked as they always thought they could get something from this game. I expect that we will win the replay on home turf, but I do not expect them to come over just to make up the numbers…
The winner of the replay has been drawn against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarterfinals on March 10th. Should it be us, there will be many associated subplots. I shan’t concern myself with any of it until after the replay, provided we are the side going to Manchester…
In closing, I’ll just say that squad rotation and quality of our second/third eleven has been a major polarizing issue amongst Arsenal supporters this season. I am not against rotating the squad – right now, I think it is absolutely necessary, considering packed our fixture list is. I am, however, against making these unforced wholesale changes to the squad. Today’s result showed me, again, that it is often self-defeating, does not get us the results we want, and potentially stalls momentum and drains confidence.
For me, the right way ahead is to rotate no more than four a match, and look to make additional rotation through in-match substitutions. None of us can know how today would have alternatively played out, but if we had changed only a handful of positions, and looked to use substitutions to make additional changes, is it so outside the realm of possibility to believe that we would have won comfortably and saved ourselves a full extra fixture in the form of a replay.
For those who believe that wholesale rotation such as today is completely justified, I respect your opinion, but also believe that events – from today, FA Cup tie versus Leeds, league fixture at Wigan – lend more support to the opposite view. In the end, I guess much also has to do with how important winning the FA Cup is to each of us.
For those who want to win this cup – such as me – changing the side in the manner we have today is irresponsible and potentially self-defeating. For those who feel that this cup must take a back seat to resting our starting eleven and getting match minutes for members of our second/third eleven, than this result can fully support their view as well.
It is what it is…
Written by Oliver