18 April 2014

FA Cups, Fourth Place, and False Dilemmas

Just a few days remain between our FA Cup final with Hull City—er, scratch that. It's just a few days until we face Hull in the Prem, and the nagging question, perhaps resurrected because we will face Hull in the FA Cup final, is "which do we want, the FA Cup or fourth place?" On its face, the question is preposterous. It might have made sense a few months ago, and then only if we were struggling to sustain ourselves. As it stood, as recently as our 4-1 win over Everton, there was no real doubt yet as to our ability to compete in the Prem or in the FA Cup. Now, as we stand, looking down on Everton in the Prem and looking ahead at Hull in the final, the question makes even less sense. One does not preclude the other. We can have our cake and eat it, so why all the fuss?

After all, to get to the FA Cup final has added five matches to our schedule, forcing a few reschedules, but even with the opponents we've drawn—Tottenham, Coventry, Liverpool, Everton, and Wigan—it's hard to say that the strain of the added matches has been so severe as to sap our strength in the Prem. None of them have been midweek fixtures that would otherwise disrupt training or recovery in the same way that Champions League fixtures have gone. If there has been any knock-on effect from FA Cup matches, it's been on those Champions League fixtures, when we beat Liverpool on a Sunday only to lose at home to Bayern on a Tuesday and again when we beat Everton on a Saturday and lost at Bayern on a Wednesday. What influence the FA Cup matches had on us against Bayern is anyone's guess; I'd have to suggest that the confidence drawn from winning offsets the potential fatigue for the most part. The only impact FA Cup fixtures may have had on our Prem campaign to date would be the draw at Southampton, suffered four days after beating Coventry. Again, as with Bayern, confidence/momentum versus fatigue? Only the players really know.

Our uneven form since January does seem to coincide with the appearance of FA Cup matches; we hadn't won consecutive matches anywhere since beating Fulham on 18 January and then Coventry on 24 January. However, to attribute our struggles to those added matches misses the point. Yes, Walcott went down in the cup-match against Tottenham, but that's a freak-injury, not a stress or fatigue-related one. It could have happened in his kitchen or in the next match at Aston Villa. Ramsey's injury predated FA Cup matches by several weeks. Özil picked up his injury against Bayern. In other words, the apparent strain of FA Cup matches is hardly to blame for our drop in form or for our injuries, at least not directly. They may be a factor, but to suggest that they've been such a factor that we've had to seriously question our ability to compete in the Prem and vie for the FA Cup trophy is madness. It suggests a certain fragility in the psyche, but not among the players. It's in us, the fans, as we've conditioned ourselves to expect struggles. Sure, there's evidence for it, but the problem with looking for trouble is you'll end up finding it. You hit what you head for, as the saying goes.

Now, with just one more added match—the final itself—and four more Prem matches to play, it seems to me that we should stop wringing our hands or muttering certain names (Bradford. Blackburn. Birimingham). We're through to the final. Fourth place is ours to lose. Stop playing the either-or game. There's just nothing in it. If winning the FA Cup involved a group-stage that added six matches, three of them involving travel to all points distant, then several two-leg stages, then, yes, the either-or false dilemma might be worth entertaining. As it currently stands, we've emerged from the five single-elimination matches unscathed and stand poised on the brink of winning the FA Cup. We even have a tune-up with Hull on Sunday to get a sense for what they're up to and capable of as we also look to strengthen our hold on fourth place (with one eye on third as well).

Posing the dilemma back in December or January might have made sense, but more in the sense of "which would make you happier?" or something along those lines. Stretching further back to August and September, I'd wager dollars to doughnuts that many, perhaps most of us, would gladly accept fourth and the FA Cup. Now that both are within reach, an all-too-familiar sense of pessimism has infected the discussion. There's really only one cure, and we all know what it is.