By Richard Clarke
This week has been a question of strength for Arsenal.
The issues have been both numerous and notorious. Are Arsène Wenger’s side strong enough to beat Bolton twice and go top of the table? Having done that, will they have the strength to stay there? And, somewhat annoyingly, was William Gallas’ tackle overly-strong in the build-up to his team’s second goal on Wednesday.
By the time Arsenal travel to Stoke on Sunday it will be a different week and a different competition.
But the questions of strength will linger.
On Thursday the manager said he intended to “use his squad” for the FA Cup Fourth Round tie at the Britannia Stadium. That is ‘Wengerish’ for multitude of changes.
The following day he was more transparent. After confirming Jack Wilshere, Sol Campbell and Mikael Silvestre would be the squad he added: “We have called up Kyle Bartley, Jay Emmanuel Thomas, Francis Coquelin, Gilles Sunu, and Craig Eastmond.
“Sol will be OK to play [after regaining fitness] but, right now, I don’t know if I play him. However it is a big opportunity for him if he does.
“I have to make a decision at right back too. Eastmond is possible. We moved him from there to central midfield in the past, so we’ll see. But Coquelin can play right back as well.
“I want to pick a team which is strong enough to win the game, without ignoring we are under immense physical demands in every single game right now and the fact some players need to have a breather.”
With Aston Villa, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool all coming up in the next fortnight or so, the logic of Wenger’s team selection for his new leaders is undoubtedly sound. However will the youngsters on show have the strength (there’s that word again) to cope with one of the most robust sides in the top flight?
In the past, Arsenal famously came unstuck against Sam Allardyce’s Bolton. The past week has shown the bogey is well and truly buried. However in many ways Stoke have taken the mantle the Reebok Stadium outfit used to possess.
Powerful, forceful, wilful, successful.
It was enough to dispatch a below-par Arsenal 2-1 in the Premier League game at the Britannia Stadium last November. The formula is still working. Stoke are 11th in the table right now, one place higher than they finished last year.
Undoubtedly Wenger knows what is coming on Sunday, the question is can his side stop it?
However, as ever, the manager’s pre-match concerns were less about the problems his side may face and more about how they can impose their game on their opponents.
“It's a question I never ask,” he said. “I just go to the game thinking 'how do we win the game?’. Nothing else.
“I feel physically we are one of the strongest teams in the League. And yet for a few years now we've won the Fair Play table.
“But,” he smiled, “it’s trophyless of course.”
Of course, the FA Cup was the last silverware held aloft by an Arsenal captain. That was five long and much-talked-about years ago.
It is somewhat ironic that, but for their recent comeback in the Premier League, Arsenal might be playing a stronger side on Sunday. In addition, there is always the danger that any defeat may affect their new-found momentum.
“We have recently improved our belief and certainly gained some credit with people who love Arsenal,” said Wenger. “That is the most important thing.
“Being top of the League is interesting psychologically but mathematically there is very little difference especially with Chelsea having a game in hand.
“For me those next four matches are not decisive but important. We deal with it game by game and our next Premier League game is at Aston Villa.
“We know that there is a long way to go but if we don’t believe we have a chance from the position we are in now, then we will never believe. So let’s be pragmatic, go into every game with the focus on producing a top-level performance and believe we can win it.
“Right now the FA Cup is our next game. It is always difficult to determine priorities but we want to keep the momentum going.
“We want to go to Stoke, to win the game and get through to the next round.
“We want to be a winning team,” he concluded. “And the FA Cup is part of that.”
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