'Don't throw a kitten into the jungle' – how Arsenal can avoid Lincoln upset
- Updated: March 10, 2017
You can watch FA Cup highlights of Arsenal v Lincoln City and Middlesbrough v Man City at 23:05 GMT on Saturday on BBC One and the BBC Sport website. Highlights of three Premier League matches are on MOTD at 22:20 GMT.
Arsenal go into Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final against National League leaders Lincoln City as overwhelming favourites – but will the tie really be as easy as it seems?
Defeat at Emirates Stadium is simply unthinkable for Arsene Wenger’s side, even given their current problems, but this sort of supposed mismatch brings its own pressure for their players.
The Gunners won away at another National League side, Sutton United, in the fifth round but now they face a challenge that will be completely new to them at the Emirates, where they have never played a non-league team before.
Hibernian boss and BBC pundit Neil Lennon draws on his experience as a player and manager in the FA Cup and Scottish Cup to explain what Arsenal must overcome, and why their psychology will be as important as their tactics when it comes to reaching the last four.
‘The occasion, atmosphere and opposition are all totally different’
Lennon: “In the space of four days, Arsenal will go from playing Bayern Munich, one of the biggest clubs in the world and with some of the best players, to taking on a team they will have hardly heard of until recently.
“In this sort of situation as a player I always prepared myself as best I could but, mentally, it is hard to approach a game like this the same way as you would normally do.
“When I was playing for Leicester under Martin O’Neill, I remember going to Hereford in the third round of the FA Cup in the 1999-00 season.
“We had played Arsenal the week before the first tie and I was up against Thierry Henry, Marc Overmars and Emanuel Petit. I went from that to playing, among others, an electrician, a teacher and a farmer.
“I had been in the lower leagues with Crewe, and played and scored at Edgar Street when Hereford were a Football League team, so I had an idea of what to expect, which helped. I knew it would be tough.
“Even so, sub-consciously, there was not the same level of intensity to my game as there had been against Arsenal. How could there be?
“Whether you are home or away against a non-league side, the occasion, atmosphere and opposition are completely different to when you are playing one of the big clubs.
“It is very difficult to have the same approach, even if the remit is the same.”
‘Playing non-league teams like taking a step into the unknown’
“I have been there myself as a manager too. You know the situation is fraught with danger, you can see what might happen – but it doesn’t mean you can stop it.
“With Bolton last season, we also needed a replay to get past Eastleigh. Before the first game at their place, I tried to make sure my players knew what to expect.
“I had done everything I could to get rid of any complacency, but I was still looking around the dressing room before kick-off wondering if they all really knew how tough it would be.
“I had it with Hibs this season too, on our way to the Scottish Cup semi-finals.
“In the fourth round we played a junior team Bonnyrigg Rose at Tynecastle. We ended up winning comfortably, but for the first five or 10 minutes we did not settle at all.
“It felt we had stepped into the unknown and the only way of dealing with that was by being out on the pitch.”
‘There will be nerves in the Arsenal dressing room too’
Lennon: “Believe it or not, with Arsenal there might also be a few nerves in there too, because they will not want to be on the end of an embarrassment.
“Unlike most other matches, they will be thinking about that. You cannot ignore it – you have to address it and try to turn it into a positive.
“Part of my pre-match team talk for Bolton was basically saying to the players that this is Eastleigh’s cup final, and that they would be in their dressing room now thinking they can beat us.
“I said that the BBC TV cameras were here to see us lose, for the magic of the cup and all that. So, let’s not be the story, let’s not be on the receiving end of that.
“I tried to tell them if we play like we can then we will be all right, but we still had to show them the respect that we would do any other team.”
‘Picking a young team like throwing a kitten into the jungle’
Lennon: “Having some experience in the team will be vital for Arsenal.
“There is no way I could have played a lot of young players against Eastleigh because it would have been like throwing a kitten into the jungle.
“I am sure their scouting report for Lincoln will be similar to the one we got for Eastleigh because at that level, you expect sides to be hard-working and physical.
“Defensively, it is about the basics of the game – you have to stop the crosses and defend set-plays with your life because that is an avenue for them. You can prepare for that in training – we did.
“At Eastleigh, the pitch was so bad that we could not play football on it so we ended up playing their type of game – it became a dog fight.
“That will not happen to Arsenal on a nice surface at Emirates Stadium on Saturday but they still need to be careful.”
You put pressure on yourself – ‘we should be beating these’
Lennon: “Off the pitch, there is plenty that can affect you too.
“At least Sanchez won’t be sold before Saturday, though. The day before Bolton played Eastleigh I was told bids had been accepted for two of my players who were going to start and they could not play.
“The expectancy levels of the supporters, press and people on social media play a part as well.
“I am sure Arsenal are happier to be playing at home than having another away tie against a non-league team, like they did against Sutton United in the last round.
“But it means their fans will rock up thinking they will see them win by three or four goals, when it doesn’t always work out that way.
“If their players think the same, then the longer the game stays at 0-0, the danger is that they will start thinking ‘we should be beating these’ and stop playing their normal game.
“The first goal will make a difference too – Eastleigh scored first in both ties against us and you could see the lift that gave them.
“Lincoln’s run to get this far will give them huge momentum and belief, but I still think Arsenal will get through this tie – in fact I think they will win comfortably.
“We can assume Lincoln will work hard and give everything, but they will probably end up being outclassed.
“Arsenal had the experience and quality to get past Sutton in their last match, so you would have to expect them to negotiate this tie as well.”
Neil Lennon was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.