Club Focus – Arsenal – FA Cup replay adds to the Gunners’ fixture congestion

Ahead of Saturday’s third round FA Cup tie with Leeds United, a replay is likely to have been the last thing Arsene Wenger wanted. Having carefully rotated his squad to guide them through the hectic festive fixture schedule relatively unscathed, Wenger still has to deal with the issue of fixture congestion as January unfolds.

Over the Christmas period Wenger’s men arguably dropped two points against Wigan Athletic due to squad rotation, and the side’s inability to see off a spirited Leeds side may similarly force le Professeur’s hand in the coming weeks. Certainly, the manager seems to have settled on his strongest XI, naming the same side to face both Chelsea and Manchester City, and understandably this was not the side that lined up on third round weekend. It was telling that the introduction of Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott added fresh impetus to the side’s lacklustre performance and ultimately it was their combination that ensured the Gunners did not exit the competition at the third round for the first time during Wenger’s reign.

Fabregas’ introduction in the heart of the midfield increased the tempo of Arsenal’s passing, and the threat of Walcott’s pace down the right flank stretched the play and provided a sterner test of the visitors’ resolve. Such was the threat Walcott carried, Arsenal quickly looked to spring their flying winger at any opportunity, with his ability to reach the by-line or cut inside and threaten the goal beguiling Leeds’ young full-back Ben Parker. Prior to Fabregas’ spot-kick, one of Walcott’s rampaging runs almost yielded a penalty when he appeared to be up-ended by Alex Bruce. Undeterred by the referee’s decision to turn down the penalty appeal, the No 14 soon drew the foul that yielded the last-minute equaliser. Following the match the England winger approved of the referee’s decision not to award a penalty in the first instance: “I want to apologise to the managers because I actually dived… I was trying to win the penalty. It is something I don’t want to see in my game.” The player’s honesty is refreshing, but also gives an indication of how much pressure the Gunners were under as they teetered on the brink of elimination. As it was, Fabregas coolly slotted home to salvage the lesser of two evils and pencil in a replay at Elland Road in just over a week’s time.

Should they progress past Leeds, the Gunners face two games per week until the 5th February, with the Champions League resuming shortly afterwards. Wenger will need to rotate his squad to deal with this, all the while knowing that poor performances will be punished as the side builds up to the business end of the season, although, having said that, Wenger probably has the most complete squad at his disposal during his long tenure, naming 10 full internationals in a second choice XI on Saturday. The blend of youth and experience has also fired the Gunners to the semi-final of the Carling Cup and Wenger will hope to gain a decisive lead over managerless Ipswich Town on Wednesday to ease the burden on his squad.

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