Mark Hughes has a big decision to make. For all our appearance of a settled side in recent months, various injuries, suspensions and regulations have combined to save the manager from dropping a front line player. We are yet to have a match when all of these players have been available: Bridge, Dunne, Onuoha, Richards, Zabaleta, de Jong, Kompany, Ireland, Robinho and SWP. I've not included Given or the strikers, because their positions are self-contained - there's only slot in the team, they can't play anywhere else in our current system, and no-one else can play there.
I know this sounds unlikely but it's true. To move backwards in time since :
Sunderland - Bridge and Ireland injured.
AaB (a) - de Jong ineligible.
Chelsea - Kompany and de Jong injured.
AaB (h) - de Jong ineligible, Kompany injured.
Aston Villa - Richards, Robinho injured.
West Ham - SWP suspended.
København (h) - de Jong ineligible.
Liverpool - SWP suspended.
København (a) - de Jong ineligible.
Portsmouth - Richards injured, SWP suspended, Dunne suspended.
Boro - Dunne suspended.
Stoke - Dunne suspended.
Newcastle - Dunne suspended.
So as you can see, one key absentee in each of the last thirteen games has allowed Hughes to rotate the players (principally by moving Zabaleta and Kompany between midfield and defence as appropriate) without dropping a big name. But for the Arsenal game on Saturday, we may well be in the position of having all of those ten players available. And providing that we stick with Bellamy or Bozhinov alone up front, we can only pick nine of them. So who will it be? Here are the options. (I've used Bellamy rather than Bozhinov up front, but naturally you could switch Boji in and everything else would still hold):
1) To drop Richards
Maybe harsh on Richards, who has played well. But Zabaleta is probably a better right back than he is. And this allows us play three specialist central midfielders.
2) To drop Kompany
He's had a fantastic first season in England, but has noticeably struggled for form and fitness recently. Zabaleta, Ireland and de Jong are all in better nick at the moment. But leaving him out gives us a midfield lacking height though - it's the middle three from the Fratton Park defeat.
3) To drop Onuoha
This is probably quite unlikely. Onuoha is having his best ever sequence of games at the moment, at centre back alongside Dunne. The only reason to do this would be if Hughes fancied Kompany ahead of Onuoha at centre back, which is questionable on current form.
4) To drop Zabaleta
Moving Zabaleta into midfield was done, amongst other reasons, to help get the best out of Richards. And it may be that Richards has done so well that he can't be dropped. And if Kompany and de Jong are preferred to Zabba in central midfield, he may well find himself on the bench.
5) To drop de Jong
This is the UEFA Cup team. But it would be stupid to miss the chance to rest some of our UEFA Cup-eligible players in the league when we have an £18million Dutch international on the bench.
6) To drop Robinho
Heavily rumoured in the press, but generally in conjunction with 'Petrov to return' stories. But how about doing it without Martin Petrov? It's the team from Anfield but with SWP in for Robinho. Could be an option at the Emirates?
As you can tell, none of these options are much better than the others. They all involve leaving out a player who deserves to play, while maintaining a similar quality and balance to the side. It's for this reason that I don't think Hughes will reach any long term decision to this question. There will be games when certain options are better than others, players who will need a rest, and all that. It's called rotation: Sir Alex Ferguson does it quite a lot, and he seems to know what he's doing. For the Emirates on Saturday, I suppose it depends on the fitness of SWP, Kompany and Robinho - all away on international duty. But should every one come back 100% fit, I imagine I'd go for option 2, and give Vincent Kompany a rest. He's looked tired for some time, and we really need him fresh for his return to the HSH Nordbank Arena next Thursday. And Arsenal are not a side against which a big physical presence in midfield is a must to compete. But for Fulham the following Sunday? Who knows.