Arsenal can trust Arsene Wenger to rotate as he chases FA Cup history
For a man so entwined in the history of the FA Cup, Arsene Wenger has shown scant regard for its romance.
As he approaches his 100th game in the competition on Saturday, it is worth remembering that Arsenal have lost just once to lower-league opposition under Wenger: a 1-0 defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers in the fifth round on Feb. 16, 2013.
And Arsenal's response to this indignity has been to mount one of the best runs in FA Cup history, winning 14 games in a row to triumph in 2014 and 2015 and now reach the fifth round again where they face Hull City at Emirates Stadium on Saturday.
It is a lucky omen. Hull have featured twice already in Arsenal's winning streak: the 2014 final, when Wenger's reign seemed to be headed for a disastrous end before Arsenal fought back from 2-0 down to win, and a rather more prosaic 2-0 victory in last season's third round. The third part of the trilogy should in theory be another straightforward affair and it would also propel Wenger towards a historic feat.
The Frenchman, who has lost only two of 45 home games in the competition, shares the record of having won the FA Cup six times with former Aston Villa manager George Ramsay, who won his sixth trophy in 1920. His first was secured as far back as 1884, with first-round entrants that year including Clapham Rovers, Old Brightonians, 1st Surrey Rifles and Druids.
The first manager in the modern era to construct a team capable of going a league season unbeaten, Wenger has also reached unimaginable heights in the post-war FA Cup. A seventh win in the competition this season would see him smash all records.
So while no one would pretend that, with Arsenal two points off top spot thanks to Danny Welbeck's rousing winner in a 2-1 win against Leicester City last weekend, winning the Premier League for the first time since 2004 is not the club's clear priority this season -- something that was made explicitly clear even in the aftermath of beating Aston Villa 4-0 in last season's final -- neither should the FA Cup be discarded.
Wenger's dominance in the competition is extraordinary. Of the managers currently active in English football, only Roberto Martinez and Guus Hiddink have a single FA Cup win to their name. Both remain in the competition this season: Everton travel to Bournemouth on Saturday evening and Chelsea host Manchester City on Sunday at 4 p.m. The latter invites closer examination of the fifth-round fixture list.
One of Chelsea or Manchester City will be expelled this weekend, Tottenham are at home to Crystal Palace and Manchester United take on Shrewsbury -- no guarantee given their recent wretched form. Other than that there is little for Arsenal to fear in the draw. They do not only have a chance to win a seventh FA Cup under Wenger, they have a pretty good one.
Given that next week brings fixtures against Barcelona in the Champions League and Manchester United in the Premier League, though, Arsenal will rightly rotate their team for the visit of Hull. The FA Cup is third on the list of priorities and Wenger's team selection will reflect that.
"I will, as always, play a team who has a good chance to qualify," Wenger said in previewing the game. "The normal squad is involved on Saturday. It is a normal squad and we'll play a usual strong team."
Reading between the lines, it seems likely that Mohamed Elneny, Calum Chambers, Joel Campbell and Theo Walcott could all be in line for a start. Possibly David Ospina, Mathieu Flamini and Alex Iwobi too. It might be too soon for Welbeck to start -- Wenger said he was "undecided" in his prematch news conference -- with the striker's heroics against Leicester coming on his return from a 10-month absence due to injury, but he will surely feature.
January signing Elneny could well take his place in the XI though. He made his only start to date in the 2-1 win over Burnley in the fourth round and can be fairly assured of another run-out. "Elneny is fit," Wenger said. "He is one of the players who could get a run [out] there. He's mobile, he's a very good player. He's adapting at the moment and I think he's there now. We'll certainly see him against Hull. He has a chance to start."
Introducing a player with so little experience of English football is a calculated risk against a Hull City team currently first in the Championship, but Wenger's incredible record in the FA Cup, which could be bolstered again this year, suggests he rarely puts a step wrong in making such calculations.