“We, as a club, have never experienced such a huge demand for tickets…Clearly the demand for this game was unprecedented in all categories.” – Bruce Elliott, Chairman, Sutton United
Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction and this weekend of FA Cup is something of that sort. The weekend fixtures will feature eight Premier League sides, four Championship sides, two from League One, and two from the National League. One of those National League sides – Sutton United, have never reached this far in the competition. But going far in a competition is one thing, and meeting one of the biggest teams in the world in that furthest round is another. It is as if fate has an interesting Football Manager save running and instead of watching the game on Youtube or Twitch, we will watch it unfold on live television.
Sutton United currently sit 17th in the 24-team National League, having scored 36 points in 30 matches, with 10 wins, 6 draws and 14 losses. In the league structure, they have never played in a league higher than the current National League (earlier National Conference). Everything about them cries out loud – a second-half team in the fifth division of the country. But this season, they have managed a very good FA Cup run – winning 5 matches in last six games, one of them against Leeds United and they also won at AFC Wimbledon in a third-round replay. As if those higher league scalps were not enough, this Monday they will be looking to snare one of the top teams of the land. However, after beating Leeds in the FA Cup, Sutton have not won in the league or other cups – losing three games and drawing one. They are not a very high scoring side, having scored only 25 goals in their 30 matches so far. Nicky Bailey, who has scored 5 of those 25, has had the experience of playing in the Championship for teams such as Charlton Athletic, Middlesbrough (2010-2013), and Milwall.
For Arsenal, as the clamor for Arsene Wenger’s forced departure increases, it becomes even more important for his team to ensure that they do not let the season slide even more. As usual, Arsenal are in the contention for top four (currently fourth) but if they do not hold their nerve in the tougher encounters, they can drop out of that permanent zone. Their Champions League campaign is almost as good as over after the 5-1 thrashing they received at the Allianz Arena. So, the FA Cup represents the only realistic opportunity for Wenger and his team to salvage their season. In this light, Wenger would be very happy that instead of a stern test of a Premier League team, or even instead of meeting a plucky Championship side, his team are facing a team that is more than 100 positions below themselves in the league hierarchy. It keeps the hope alive for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger.
Sutton United do not have any injury worries and their manager Paul Doswell can choose from a full squad. Sutton have four former Arsenal players on their books and each of them will be looking to make a statement on Monday night. Craig Eastmond has completed his three-game ban in midweek and is free to play against his former club.
For Arsene Wenger, knocks to Lucas Perez and Laurient Koscielny during the game in Munich, are a slight problem as they added to an existing list of injured absentees. Although the veteran manager can call upon a strong bench and youth set up, the absence of Koscielny at the back can hurt Arsenal, as amply shown by Bayern Munich a few days back.
- Sutton are playing their first ever fifth round FA Cup tie in their history. By contrast, this will be Arsenal’s 54th game at this stage since 1925/26.
- Sutton were the last non-league team to win an FA Cup home game against top-flight opposition vs Coventry in 1989.
- In the cup’s current format, no non-league team has ever reached the sixth round. Sutton and Lincoln City, both have an opportunity to do so in this round.
- Sutton midfielder Craig Eastmond played 10 times for Arsenal between October 2009 and November 2010, including one appearance in the FA Cup; a game that they lost 1-3 to Stoke City
If Sutton are to create an unprecedented upset on Monday, they will have to defend their heart out and ensure that Arsenal do not get a free run at their goal. In the last three FA Cup matches against top-flight competition, Sutton have leaked 15 goals. They will need to defend much better than that to even giver Arsenal a proper game. Whether they are able to defend or not and whether they are able to hurt Arsenal while attacking depends on whether their skipper – Jamie Collins, is able to contribute defensively substantially, while also maintaining his current goal scoring form. The Watford academy graduate is Sutton’s top scorer this season but position-wise he is more of a midfielder or a defender. A solid game from him can cause some flutters among the Gunners.
The Frenchman made the bench in Munich during the mid-week but I think Wenger will not take too many chances and ask Giroud to lead Arsenal’s line on Monday, as a plastic pitch might make it difficult for Arsenal’s general game strategy to be applied. Giroud can provide a plan B, in case the Gunners need a target man up front against a physical opposition on an artificial surface. Despite getting fewer opportunities this season, Giroud has scored 11 goals in 23 appearances (9 starts) this season. Arsene Wenger can afford to rotate a lot, as Arsenal do not play again till the 4th of March. As a part of this rotation, Giroud and perhaps even Welbeck can expect to start and help themselves to a goal or two against Sutton.
No matter how wonderful it is, a fairy tale does come to an end and Sutton United’s brilliant FA Cup run will end on Monday. Arsenal have many problems to worry about, including playing Liverpol at Anfield in two weeks’ time but against Sutton United, this team and its bench should prove too powerful for the non-league side.
Sutton United 0 – 3 Arsenal