By Richard Clarke
The FA Cup is, most certainly, a priority for Arsène Wenger this season.
The Arsenal manager goes into campaigns with the Premier League and Champions League joint-top of his annual ‘To-Do’ list. The Carling Cup is fourth, albeit with a heavy educational slant. That leaves the FA Cup safe in third.
That order will not change this term. But, speaking ahead of the Third Round tie with Plymouth at Emirates Stadium on Saturday, the Arsenal manager was more willing to bracket this year’s competition with the top two on his list than the bottom one. It was a subtle but interesting shift of emphasis.
“The FA Cup is one of three trophies that we go for with regular players,” said Wenger at Friday’s pre-match press conference. “The Carling Cup is one we go for with young, upcoming players so yes it is one of the major priorities of the season.
“I believe that my team are on a good run and they are looking stronger and stronger. They have matured mentality-wise and this competition is a good opportunity to show it. The gap between the Premier League and Championship has been reduced and so I believe at the moment we are not in a position to lose - we just want to win.”
Wenger has lost Denilson (back) and Kolo Toure (groin) through injury while Aaron Ramsey and new-appointed ‘Cup keeper’ Lukasz Fabianski will come in. But apart from that, the Arsenal side will be very familiar.
Plymouth come into this tie in 15th place in their division and have registered just one win in their last eight League games. Manager Paul Sturrock returned for his second spell in charge at Home Park just over a year ago. The Scotsman took the Pilgrims to within touching distance of a Play-Off spot last term but this year has been more a struggle.
That said, they are optimistic enough to be bringing 9,000 fans to Emirates Stadium.
And, for his part, Wenger is taking them as seriously as any other opponent.
“I watched them twice on tape and we have had our scouts at every single game since the draw was made,” he said.
“I know the manager and I know their players however they have changed a lot so it is very difficult to know how they’ll play but their system remains relatively stable.
“They play a 4-5-1, try to make it difficult for us and are very strong on set pieces. Also I hear they have a lot of fans coming to Emirates Stadium. So I feel it is important for us to stay well-focussed because this will be a typical cup game."
Wenger’s concern is his own supporters right now. Arsenal are gradually recovering after five early-season defeats but they remain 10 points off top spot in the Premier League and three adrift of the fourth and final Champions League spot.
Even the manager admits he is on the market to strengthen his squad in the transfer window but, he adds, only “special talent” can augment the ability already present in his young squad.
Over the past decade his policy has been to patiently push the foundation stones of the next great Arsenal team into position. Adding players aimlessly would weaken that long-term work so, he argues, the fans must resist the temptation of wastefully spending in the January sales.
“I am just telling them not to be infected by all the negative publicity around the Club,” he said. “That is because in the last three and a half years maybe we have not got enough credit but in 10 years people will realise it was good work.
“If we can add an extra talent [in January] we will do it but it has to be a special talent because we have good players.
“First of all you have to find the player, identify him, convince him to come here and at the moment that is not easy. We have located a few though.”
Optimistically, the manager was asked to reveal their identities.
“Well,” he smiled, “as for naming them now, I feel we have to make a big resolution not to change that in 2009.”
No disrespect to Plymouth, but you’d hope the home team’s resolve will not be tested too hard on Saturday.
The FA Cup may now be firmly on Wenger’s hit list but bigger tests in bigger competitions lie just around the corner.
And, of course, if there is negative publicity around Arsenal now then I'd hate to see the media reaction if Emirates Stadium played host to a Third Round shock.
That, in itself, should be incentive enough for Wenger’s men.Copyright 2014 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source 5 Dec 2008