04 January 2015

The FA Cup: Destiny or Distraction?

The third round of the FA Cup kicks off on Sunday, and we've got a reunion on our hands, but the that larger question that looms is just how to make of this match. The symbolism is strong; after all, it was a 3-2 win over Hull back in May that brought a welcome end to our long trophy drought. There was a time when winning the FA Cup meant almost as much as winning the Prem, but those days, like Fergie, are long-gone. Without casting further aspersions on the FA Cup, we at Arsenal do have to ask ourselves just what we're going on about. Will we be content to win this bit of silverware but settle for the annual fight for fourth place? The way things are going so far, this year's answer might have to be none other than a qualified 'yes'.

Why is it that I had to choose an image of a Gunner getting injured?
To be clear, I love the FA Cup. It sets aside the various divisions of English football and throws open the doors for anyone to win it. Even if it's true that a Prem side usually does win it, there's something noble in the idea that a Championship or League 1 squad could win it. It's the world's oldest cup competition, at least in football. True, it's been a while since anyone outside the Prem has won it, but the FA Cup still has something to offer to all comers. Witness our own glory back in May when winning the FA Cup brought a welcome-end to a nearly decade-long drought.  If that's not enough to convince you of just how much the FA Cup still matters, revisit the 2013 FA Cup final, when Wigan, on its way back down to the Championship, defeated Man City, who had just won the Prem a season before (and would again a season later).

This is no mug's game. Sure, Prem titans could win it just by winning as few as six matches, but the democratic feel persists. A year ago, after all, Arsenal faced off against Tottenham in the third round, a high-profile, high-intensity derby that might just exceed the feel of a "regular" NLD.

However, given Arsenal's current form and prospects, this year's FA Cup already offers a mixed feeling. Whereas a season ago we were still flying high in the Prem and could perhaps afford to treat the FA Cup as a bit of a distraction, this time through feels altogether different. Last January, it felt as if we had legimitate designs on winning the Prem. We held a comfortable if not commanding lead, and the FA Cup felt like a bit of luxury, a bit like the icing on the cake (if we could be permitted to count eggs before they hatch...). That our path to the final was paved by the likes of Tottenham, Liverpool, and Everton, as well as cup-holders Wigan, was invigorating, but it stood in stark contrast to our decline in the Prem, where we fell from first to fourth almost as if it was fated.

That contrast, again, stands out. As it currently stands, winning the FA Cup might very well be our best and only chance at winning silverware. The Prem looks to be out of reach. The Champions League, even given our favorable draw against Monaco, looks to be a fool's errrand. Should we then focus our energies on the FA Cup? This is not an either-or question, as we'd be adding a half-dozen fixtures to the list, but we could put all of our eggs in this basket and still come away empty-handed, whether it be against Hull on Sunday or against, for example, Man City or Leeds in just a few weeks.

Would winning the FA Cup be enough of a salve if we were to fall out of the top four in the Prem? It's hard to foresee us rising any higher than fourth, and on current returns, we'll be in a rabid dogfight for that fourth spot unless at least one or more among Southampton, Tottenham, and West Ham falter. What do we do? Should we set our sights on the FA Cup, hoping to win it and in the process gloss over our failure to make any kind of meaningful headway in the Prem, or will we make a few crucial signings who, joining a squad coming back to full-strength, can launch a stirring charge towards the top of the Prem?

Last season, we sat atop the Prem more than half the season only to "settle" for winning the FA Cup. This time through, we might have to write off the Prem in order to focus on the FA Cup. Should we win that bit of silverware, would it be enough to make the season a success?