Mikel Arteta has much to think about ahead of Arsenal’s FA Cup fourth-round clash at Manchester City on Friday night.
The Gunners travel to the Etihad Stadium sitting top of the pile in the Premier League, five points clear of City with a game in hand. Even the most ardent of Arsenal fans will be pinching themselves at the position they find themselves in at the halfway stage of what has been a remarkable season.
Arteta’s young side have passed every test that has come their way so far, and they have done it in a style that suggests they have what it takes to stay the course. But there is one challenge they are yet to face, though that all changes on Friday night when they finally go head-to-head with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
“It’s a big match,” Arteta declared earlier this week. “A big test for us against, in my opinion, the best football team in the world. I’m looking forward to it because it will tell us a lot about where we are.”
Friday night’s game is the first of two meetings in just over a fortnight between the Premier League’s top two. And Arteta goes into it with some big decisions to make in terms of his team selection.
Many believe he will ring the changes, giving key players such as Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey, Martin Odegaard and William Saliba the evening off to ensure they will be well rested for the trip to Everton the following weekend.
But would prioritising the Premier League over the FA Cup be a mistake at this early stage? One Arsenal legend believes so.
“You cannot make eight or 10 changes,” two-time Premier League winner Lauren tells GOAL. “This is madness. If he [Arteta] decides to change eight players, then we all will support him. But I believe that you have to maintain the momentum of the team and select the best players to face City.”
How Arteta should approach Friday night’s trip to the Etihad has been the big talking point at Arsenal this week. There are plenty of fans who believe he should rotate heavily, but there are others who are worried about the impact a potentially heavy defeat could have on the remainder of the season, no matter who was involved in the starting XI.
“I wouldn’t rest players,” Lauren continues. “First of all, we have to see with the fitness coach the physical condition of certain individuals and from there make a decision. But in my opinion, it’s the FA Cup, you have to go for it. If you play against Man City then you select the best players.
"You cannot rest players thinking that you want to win the league because we have to keep the momentum of the team.”
Arteta has done his best to play down the significance of Friday’s result in terms of the wider context of the season. The Spaniard believes the two meetings over the coming weeks will be "two very, very different games", claiming that "the context is extremely different".
But the Arsenal boss has conceded that the victor of the cup tie will gain a valuable momentum boost ahead of the second half of the league season. And that’s what he must weigh up when selecting his team for Friday night.
So far this season he has five players who have started all 19 of Arsenal’s league games. Martinelli, Ben White, Gabriel Magalhaes, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsdale have all been ever present, while Saka and Odegaard have both only sat out one match.
For a normal FA Cup tie, the majority of those players would be given a rest. But this is no normal FA Cup tie. It brings back memories of the 2007-08 season, when Arsenal drew Manchester United in the fifth round.
Arsene Wenger took his side to Old Trafford with the Gunners sitting top of the table, again with a five-point lead over their closest rivals.
The Frenchman, however, rested several of his key names, and a Wayne Rooney-inspired United cruised to a thumping 4-0 success.
Arsenal then went on a five-game winless run in the league and surrendered their grasp on the title race, eventually losing out to United by four points. Many pointed to that cup game at Old Trafford as the turning point, and that is something Arteta must be wary of.
He does have a strong squad to choose from, however, with the recent additions of Leandro Trossard and Jakub Kiwior strengthening his hand further.
Kieran Tierney, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Rob Holding and Fabio Vieira could also come in, while Emile Smith Rowe needs game time as he continues to battle back to full fitness after four months out.
So Arteta has plenty of options to call upon at the Etihad. He just needs to decide how and when to use them. Whatever decision he makes could have a major impact, not just on the game itself, but on the season as a whole.
Lauren was speaking to GOAL via FairBettingSites.