Under-strength Arsenal and Hull go to unwanted FA Cup replay
LONDON -- Three thoughts on Arsenal and Hull's 0-0 draw in the FA Cup fifth round.
1. Managers make their priorities clear
We're now fully accustomed to managers heavily rotating their sides for the FA Cup, but this truly was a reserve game. Incredibly, Arsene Wenger and Steve Bruce made 19 changes between them, and each side featured only two players who would be considered first-team regulars.
Both managers were concentrating on more important midweek games. On Tuesday, Arsenal have a Champions League clash against Barcelona, while Hull, who are top of the Championship, face Ipswich on the same night and Sheffield three days later.
While Arsenal rotated, it's significant that Barcelona didn't rest key players for Saturday's trip to Las Palmas, a round trip in excess of 2,500 miles. Wenger might feel this gives his players a physical advantage, but he will be less pleased that the side he picked Saturday will have to replay.
In a week that saw reports that The FA are considering scrapping replays and making the FA Cup a midweek competition, the approaches of Wenger and Bruce were further confirmation that the tournament is considered something of an afterthought, if not an outright inconvenience, by most managers. It's not about disrespect, as many often complain, but there's no doubt that clubs value the Cup significantly less than supporters.
The two bosses know what this tournament means: No one has won the FA Cup more often as a manager than Wenger, while Bruce triumphed three times with Manchester United. This was the third straight season in which the clubs have met in the competition, and it came two years after they played out an epic final, which Arsenal won 3-2.
Yet ultimately, the FA Cup plays little more than a support role in both club's ambitions this season. When both managers name such weak sides, it strengthens the case for some kind of reform -- either to incentivise managers to name stronger sides or to accept the cup's diminished role and not base a whole weekend around these half-hearted contests.
2. Welbeck back but wide
The most significant starter was Danny Welbeck, who, six days after his vital winner against Leicester, made his first start of the season. Intriguingly, he was fielded on the left flank, with Theo Walcott given the nod at the centre-forward position. Joel Campbell was on the right, with Alex Iwobi deployed in the No. 10 position.
At times, it felt like Arsenal were playing with two up front: Welbeck moved into centre-forward positions, which left the left-sided width to full-back Kieran Gibbs. Still, it was surprising that Walcott was given the central role against a side defending so deep. Welbeck's aerial power and hold-up play would surely have been more useful in that role.
Welbeck had plenty of attempts at goal, however. After 12 minutes, Walcott received the ball on the right of the penalty area and showed an incredible change of speed to leave Curtis Davies on the floor before standing the ball up to the far post. Welbeck was first to the ball, but his header was straight at Hull's stand-in goalkeeper, Eldin Jakupovic.
He went close again a few minutes later, when he drifted into the inside-right channel before his near-post shot was beaten away by Jakupovic. On 20 minutes, Welbeck stormed forward through the centre of the pitch and knocked the ball through to Walcott before nearly collecting the return ball when breaking into the box.
Arsenal had all the chances before halftime. Mathieu Flamini got in behind after a good ball from Mohamed Elneny, while Iwobi also went close and curled a left-footed shot from 20 yards just past the far post. Walcott's low near-post shot from a tight angle forced yet another save from Jakupovic.
It was the same story after halftime. Campbell curled a lovely free kick toward the goal, which forced Jakupovic into a truly outstanding save low to his right. Another stop came shortly afterward, when Welbeck cut inside from the left and his shot took a nasty deflection, which made Jakupovic's task particularly tricky. The Hull goalkeeper adjusted in midair and parried the ball away.
Midway through the second period, Wenger introduced Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez, who replaced Welbeck and Campbell, but Arsenal didn't really up the tempo and struggled to create more presentable chances.
Stoppage time was somehow fitting: Sanchez had a dipping free kick saved by Jakupovic, before the Swiss shot-stopper was forced to make one final block, this time from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's tame header.
3. Hull defend in numbers
Bruce has generally used a 4-2-3-1 system this season, but on Saturday, he reverted to the three-man defence he often used in Hull's Premier League years. Of course, because the away side were usually without the ball, it was more like a five-man defence that frustrated Arsenal's four attackers, with the Hull midfield also sitting extremely deep.
Lone striker Adama Diomande frequently had no teammates within 30 yards, though he did cause Arsenal problems with his speed, and Laurent Koscielny was booked shortly before halftime for hauling down the Norwegian forward.
Hull also offered a threat from set pieces. In the 2014 final between these sides, two centre-backs put Hull into a shocking, early 2-0 lead, and Bruce's side were presumably hoping for the same thing here. However, the only notable contribution from a visiting defender in the Arsenal box came when Harry Maguire was rightly booked for a somewhat theatrical dive.
For the majority of this contest, this was a stereotypical Arsenal home game, in that they had all the possession but struggled to make the breakthrough. It's entirely the opposite of the match they'll encounter Tuesday against Barcelona, who will attempt to dominate the ball and play with a high defensive line.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.