It is a fairly simple scenario when it comes to team selection tonight in the Champions League against PSG.
Does Arsene Wenger stick with his strongest team and give them the best chance of securing top spot, or twist, rest a whole load of them, and potentially sacrifice winning the Champions League group? Arguments for both are compelling.
Over recent years, Arsenal’s record of getting through the group stages is exceptional. But topping the group, and getting through the 1st knock out stage is not so exceptional.
Win tonight, we top the group, meaning we play a 2nd place, supposedly weaker, team, therefore the best chance of getting through to the Champions League Quarter Final. Or that’s the theory anyway.
So as it stands, winning the group would mean we avoid the likes of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, yet we could still end up with ties against Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus. With two rounds of games to go, there is still plenty to play for. But winning the group is no guarantee of an easier tie.
The last time we topped the group, we ended up drawn against AC Milan, with Robinho, Zlatan, Tiago Silva and co. We lost 4-0 in the San Siro.
There is also the presumption that putting out our strongest XI will see us top the group.
Yes, PSG will be coming into tonight’s game with key players out – Angel di Maria & Javier Pastore both picked up injuries in the weekend win over Nancy; adding to an injury list which already contained the likes of Adrian Rabiot, Alphonse Areola and Layvin Kurzawa – but Arsenal are not assured of the win.
A nightmare scenario would be Arsenal put out a strongest XI, lose and still end up 2nd.
Having already qualified for the knock out rounds, Arsenal could sacrifice the group, rotate the squad, giving key starters a rest. It is no coincidence that Chelsea and Liverpool are top 2 in the league – two sides without European football.
Arsenal have 6 games in 19 games. By twisting, and one of those games being a league game match, it would mean the 1st XI play just 3 games in 19 days, the 2nd XI the same. By resting and rotating it would keep the players fresher for the Christmas run – another tough period of 5 Premier League games in 22 days.
I would certainly sacrifice finishing top of the league to ensure our players are fresher in the short term for Bournemouth, and long term for that Christmas period.
Take Alexis Sanchez for example. He is a machine. A Duracell Bunny. But there were worries this time last week that his year could be over having picked up an injury whilst on International duty with Chile.
He ended up playing, and scoring twice, just 7 days ago, before putting in a lacklustre performance against Manchester United.
Taking into account he has travelled to the other side of the globe and back, picked up an injury, played, and then rolled himself out for a key game against Man U, does he not deserve a rest?
With our next Premier League game against Bournemouth on Sunday, we could have easily given him 3 days of rest and recuperation work – ice baths, massages, stretching, yoga – before returning him to full training on Wednesday.
By not playing Sanchez today, we would be giving him 7 days between games. Plenty of time for his body to recover from the stresses and strains of a tough 24 months.
The other side of the coin is a non-footballing one. The club have decided to make the game Cat A. That means tickets from £62. By putting out a 2nd XI, a League Cup side, for the match against PSG, it would show little respect to the fans who have forked out, and even less to loyal season ticket holders who will be forced to pay extra for next years season ticket due to the extra Cat A game.
In the League Cup Arsenal charge fans £10 lower / £20 upper for adults. And kids got in for £5 lower / £10 upper. Fans know they are going to see a rotated XI, a mixture of reserve and youth players, and the prices reflect that.
Charging from £62 and putting out the League Cup side would be champagne prices for lemonade football. No even Schweppes Lemonade, but Tesco Own Value Range Lemonade.
Of course, this type of thinking and influence should not come into play with Wenger’s team selection, but unfortunately the board’s decision to categorise this game as Cat A could force Wenger’s hand.
Personally, I think we could find a middle ground of resting some, playing some.
David Ospina will continue in goal, that is not even a debate. With Hector Bellerin out injured, Carl Jenkinson will be given another run out at full back. Kieran Gibbs taking up his usual cup left back slot on the other side. I would keep it semi-strong in the middle, partnering Shkodran Mustafi and Gabriel. Mustafi only played a friendly on international break, and Gabriel could do with a run out to ensure he is sharp if one of the main two break down.
Moving forward, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey need to be partnered in the middle of the park. This is potentially our future central midfield paring, and we need to start playing them together. Since the 1-1 draw with Spurs, Xhaka has played 90 minutes against the Faroe Islands and 10 minutes at the weekend. He will be fresh. Likewise Ramsey played just 1 international game between the Spurs and Man U games.
Mesut Ozil will surely get a start at the top of the midfield 3. He was not selected for Germany has just had a 2 week rest. He looked rusty against Man U, so could probably do with a game to shake the cobwebs off.
Either side of him I would go for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi. Neither player started against Manchester United at the weekend, and with the possibility of Alexis Sanchez returning to the left wing for Bournemouth, both are in competition with Theo Walcott for a place on the right wing.
Upfront should see the return of Olivier Giroud who will be given the chance to stake a place for a return to the 1st XI.
Jenkinson Mustafi Gabriel Gibbs
Ox Ozil Iwobi
It perhaps shows the strength in depth of Arsenal at the moment that the above XI does look very strong, yet only Mustafi and Ozil are guaranteed starters
Topping the group, getting an easier tie in the knock out round, and making the QF would be a monkey off the back, but it is essentially a nonsensical achievement. Making the QF is no different to making the knock out’s. Except for a few extra million, you achieve nothing else. Surely we should focus on real achievements, like winning the Premier League. Therefore twisting and putting out a 2nd string is most logical.
I would twist rather than stick.
Note: After writing I have just been informed the game is tomorrow. Not today. Can’t be bothered to alter it. Just read it again tomorrow.