By Richard Clarke
For the first time in decade, Arsène Wenger is going ‘all out’ in the four main competitions – and he’ll prove it on Saturday.
Ever since the early years of his tenure in North London, the Arsenal manager has targeted the Premier League and Champions League but managed his resources in the FA and Carling Cups.
He played a young side in the latter knockout competition and often had to do to same in the middle rounds of the former when the European games returned to the calendar.
However this season, Wenger believes the size of his squad can cover any eventuality.
On Saturday, Arsenal start their 2011 FA Cup adventure with a tough-looking tie with Leeds at Emirates Stadium. On Wednesday, they play the first leg of their Carling Cup Semi-Final against Ipswich.
Wenger shuffled his squad for those four Premier League games in ten days over Christmas and he has promised more of the same this weekend.
But, at the same time, Arsenal will NOT be weak.
“I said since the start of the season that I have a big squad and that we will go for all the competitions,” he said at his pre-match press conference. “Our desire is to qualify on Saturday, we take the FA Cup very seriously.
“We rotated quite well I think [over Christmas] so we are not over-tired. I will play the best team available.
“I am very lucky because I have 25 players of a top, top level and choosing for any game is a big problem because I have an abundance of quality. The team who plays will be the freshest team and therefore the best available.
“We play on Wednesday in the Semi-Final of the League Cup and we have four days to prepare after the FA Cup, so it is no problem.”
On Friday, Wenger ruled out Jack Wilshere, Laurent Koscielny, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie. He then added that Aaron Ramsey, Carlos Vela and Kieran Gibbs would be in the squad while Wojciech Szczesny should probably take the gloves.
That may appear as though four regulars are out and four not-so-regulars are in but Saturday’s side will not be like that. Expect a host of familiar names with maybe one surprise on the bench.
Leeds ended Wenger’s first FA Cup campaign at Highbury in 1997. It remains the only time Arsenal have lost on home soil under the Frenchman. They have not been defeated by lower league opposition in that time either.
Despite that, Simon Grayson’s side will fancy a shock to match the one they pulled off at Manchester United last season.
They will be backed by around 9,000 travelling fans for their first trip to Emirates Stadium. To Wenger, the game rekindles memories of games gone by.
“Not so long ago, on January 1, 2002, Leeds were top of the Premier League but three or four years later, they were in League One,” he said.
“It just shows you how quickly you can go up and down when you do not respect the basic rules of our game. Leeds is part of a tradition of football history in England. You knew when you went to Leeds, if you took points there you had a chance to do well in the League.
“And it looks now as though they are coming up again.”
Arsenal fans endured a turgid 0-0 draw with an unambitious and shackling Manchester City side on Wednesday. Leeds will be the polar opposite. In the Championship they have scored 46 goals – a figure behind only Watford – and conceded 43 – a figure bettered by only Preston, who are rock bottom.
Sanchez Watt, on loan from Arsenal, may be part of that frontline but he is more likely to be on the bench even if he does recover from injury.
The home side will attack too. Mostly because it is Wenger’s way but also because they will not want a replay adding to a cluttered schedule.
“We will go to win the game,” said Wenger. “We are at home at the Emirates so we can't say we're going for a draw.
“If we have to replay to qualify, we'll do that aswell. I remember it happened against Port Vale where we had to go there in a replay and we won. After that we won the Cup.
“But ideally we want to qualify tomorrow because after that we have Ipswich and then West Ham.”
Wenger has never ‘chosen’ any competition really. The fruits of a deliberate Carling Cup policy are obvious to see and his decisions in the FA Cup have been steered by Champions League demands.
“The only problem we have had in the FA Cup is sometimes it conflicts with the Champions League when you go far,” he said.
“I remember we played Manchester United in the Semi-Finals at Villa Park, and then three days later we had a Quarter-Final of the Champions League.
“I played all of the players and in the end we lost the Champions League match late in the game. When that happens you think we should have sacrificed a bit more the FA Cup.
“But we learned over Christmas that we have the potential to go all the way this season and that we have the desire to do it.
“So let’s just go for it.”