Between 1983 and 2017 the FA Cup was won by either Arsenal or Manchester United 17 times. Another 5 times in that 35-year period saw one of the two as beaten finalists. Apart from the latter Wenger years, the main reason both those sides dominated the most prestigious domestic cup competition in world football was because they were the best, or certainly among the best, sides in the country. That is no longer the case, and the cup now represents not the icing on the cake for a season, but almost the entire substance of the cake—the chance to rescue a season.
With that in mind, the third-round FA Cup draw has not been kind to either side. Of course, the flipside of needing to progress in the competition to rescue a season is that an early exit will heap more pressure onto the club and its manager (whoever that may be, in Arsenal’s case).
Wolverhampton Wanderers v Manchester United (Sat 4th January 5.31pm BT Sport)
After seemingly daily reports about how Solksjaer was out of his depth and would not see it through to Christmas, the affable Norwegian has turned the club’s fortunes around, culminating in that very impressive win at the Etihad. That said, United are the biggest outsiders they have been at this stage of the competition, for as long as most fans’ memories go back.
Wolves are another side who have turned their fortunes around in recent weeks, and, along with Liverpool and Leicester, they are the form side in the league. Last year they made it to the FA Cup semi-final, which shows the club’s and Nuno’s ambitions when it comes to this competition. It is highly likely that both managers will field full-strength teams, despite it coming after the famously congested festive period. This season will be the first to feature a winter break, which will go some way to alleviate the strains of the winter schedule.
Both sides are neck-and-neck at the moment, and it is anyone’s guess who will be higher placed in the league come January 4th, or indeed who will be favourites. Wolves will see this season as a very good chance to get their hands on the trophy they have won 4 times previously—the last time being as long ago as 1960.
Head to Heads
The meeting between the two sides in August this season ended in a 1-1 draw. Last season the West Midlands club had the upper hand, drawing in the league at Old Trafford and winning the corresponding home fixture 2-1. They also met in the cup last season, with the Wolves again winning 2-1 at Molineux, knocking Solskjaer’s United out at the quarterfinal stage a week before he was made permanent manager at the club.
The two clubs have faced each other 102 times. United have won 48 of those—and Wolves 36—with 18 games ending in a draw. In the FA Cup it is even closer. They have locked horns 9 times, with United coming out best on 4 occasions, Wolves 3 times, and 2 games having gone to a replay.
Arsenal v Leeds United (Mon 6th January 7.56pm BBC)
Vying with the United-Wolves game and the Liverpool derby for the tie of the round is this clash between The Gunners and Leeds. The Yorkshire side have gotten themselves into a strong position in the league in their latest attempt to get back into the EPL. They will not need reminding, however, that they have gotten into that position many times before, including last season, only to fall short. There is no doubting that the Cup, though not a distraction, will not be the top priority for Marcelo Bielsa, being that it comes sandwiched between an away game against title rivals and current leaders in the Championship West Brom and a Yorkshire derby against Sheffield Wednesday.
Last season Leeds limped out of the 3rd round against QPR while Arsenal lost to Man U in the 4th round. Once again, the head-to-heads between these sides have been close. Arsenal have won 46 times and Leeds 41 times, while there have been 32 draws. The last game was in the 3rd round of the cup in 2012, with Arsenal winning 1-0. They also faced each other at the same stage of the competition the previous year, with Arsenal coming away from Elland Road as 3-1 winners in the replay after they had shared 2 goals in the first game.