Would Arsenal’s title charge be best served by losing to Man City?
Each week, ESPN’s Luis Miguel Echegaray offers his latest thoughts and permutations from the world of football. You have the analysis, now comes LME’s commentary. Welcome to the first edition of the Tap-In!
Is it better for Arsenal to lose against Man City in the FA Cup?
As Arsenal continue their almost indomitable run toward the Premier League title, with Manchester City a manageable if not entirely comfortable five points behind (having played a game more), attention now turns to the FA Cup fourth round. And wouldn’t you know it? The pair will face each other on Friday at the Etihad (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).
It’s one of three encounters between these two teams before the end of the season, and it could tell us a lot about what to expect from the conclusion of the 2022-23 campaign — not everything, but enough to paint a picture.
Mikel Arteta against Pep Guardiola. Student against master. South against north. Cockneys against Mancunians. Coldplay against Oasis — all right, I took it too far. The point is that this trilogy of matches will play out like a good old game of Texas Hold ‘Em, and both managers will aim to call each other’s bluff.
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What if, however, in this cup match, the best hand to play is a losing one?
Hear me out.
There’s a strategy in American sports — sometimes even a constructive one, if done right — where embracing a losing season can essentially help you to win in the long run. If a team with no star power, a disjointed squad and disgruntled fan base identifies early on that there’s no legitimate hope for the playoffs, the franchise could reconsider its roster and, most importantly, plan ahead for the extremely important draft, where high-school, college and international athletes are eligible for selection. The more you lose, the more likely you are to be able to select a coveted star.
This is tanking, and it is obviously a massive risk, with seemingly infinite variables determining the outcome. When it works, though, it can change a team’s entire trajectory.
In the NBA, for example, the 1991-92 Orlando Magic were dreadful, finishing last in the Atlantic Division with a 21-61 record. Their reward? Shaquille O’Neal. The gigantic phenomenon won Rookie of the Year that season and helped the Magic reach the NBA Finals in just his third season before jetting off to Los Angeles. LeBron James, for example, changed the overall identity of Cleveland after being selected by his hometown Cavaliers right out of high school.
In this year’s draft, there will be another prodigy by the name of Victor Wembanyama, a French unicorn — a licorne, if you will. At 7-foot-3 (some say he’s taller) and possessing moves like a point guard, we have literally never seen anybody like him. Every front office in the NBA is preparing for him, whatever happens, and most notably, if your team is bad enough, then your chances of attaining him significantly improve.
So, what does this all have to do with north London’s Arsenal and their Basque manager? Well, it goes back to my original point. Don’t prepare to win now, but rather plan to win later.
Arteta’s revolution inside the Emirates is quite outstanding and yes, last weekend I said that if they win the Premier League, many aspects of the victory will be more impressive than than the Invincibles season of 2003-2004. Many yelled at me in the comments, but my point stands, mainly because — unlike Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles, with Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp and other stars — Arteta’s young side is basically the Rugrats cast, entering a brand-new playground without much experience in this situation. With an average age of 24.6 years old, the Gunners have no business winning any competition, so they need this title-chasing path to be as smooth as possible.
ESPN analyst Steve McManaman, who won a pair of LaLiga titles with Real Madrid, said it to ESPN FC host Kay Murray and me a few days ago: In order to maintain this level of excellence, Arsenal have to stay healthy, it’s as simple as that. The best way to do that is to alleviate the fixture congestion, and that’s why they need to lose this Friday and focus on the Premier League.
Arteta should field his weakest squad and prepare for a jam-packed schedule — and I haven’t even talked about their Europa League commitments yet. Arteta will never admit it and the fans will argue that a team should always play to win, but in a marathon-like season, these are the words of the fool, not the savvy. Wenger would often use this strategy and prioritize what was necessary ahead of what was idealistic. I am not saying Arteta will manage to lose on Friday. I am saying he should weaken his team and be prepared to relinquish the cup for the larger treasure ahead.
So, Mikel, here’s what I propose: See Pep’s hand, anticipate his tell and just like Matt Damon’s Mike McDermott did to John Malkovich’s Teddy “KGB” in the final scene of “Rounders,” bait Guardiola into thinking he’s winning, when really, he’s actually going to lose.
Goal of the Week
Serious question. Is Marcus Rashford the best player in Europe right now?
MARCUS RASHFORD WHAT A RUN 🔥
His 10th goal in 10 games since the World Cup!! pic.twitter.com/iIXRLGwyfe
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 25, 2023
Nineteenth in the Premier League and without a manager, Everton are in serious trouble and on their way to suffering relegation for the first time in their history. Frank Lampard is gone, Marcelo Bielsa reportedly isn’t interested in replacing him, and Arnaut Danjuma — who was supposedly on his way to Goodison Park — has now decided at the 11th hour and 59th minute to move to Tottenham Hotspur instead.
Danjuma after the Everton players told him “we will fight together” pic.twitter.com/jDgs0M0Ad4
— Adis ⚜️ (@AdisUno7) January 24, 2023
Is there anyone who can save this club? Well, the problems lie far, far deeper than a managerial change, but at this point, the fans don’t care. They just need someone, anyone, who can keep them in the Premier League. There’s talk of Sean Dyche, Nuno Espírito Santo and even Ralph Hasenhüttl, fresh from his Southampton firing. Even Toffees legend Duncan Ferguson doesn’t want the job, apparently: he’s just been appointed as the new manager at League One’s Forest Green Rovers.
Duncan Ferguson gives this Everton fan a moment they won’t forget 💙
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 21, 2019
In addition, late reports on Tuesday stated that Farhad Moshiri is actively looking to sell the club for more than $600m, making its future even more uncertain.”
Tweet of the week
Carlo Ancelotti: Most decorated manager in Champions League history. Former midfield legend. Real Madrid savior. Gum giver.
Carlo Ancelotti really gave him some gum 😂🍬
(via babaychou/TikTok) pic.twitter.com/W3iurwPukP
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 23, 2023