Attention turns to the FA Cup replay with Swansea, not such a bad thing considering the rancour over defeat at the hands of Manchester City on Sunday. The week is being seen as pivotal to Arsenal’s season but I am not sure that the Premier League matches are. With the same fixtures remaining for others above us along with matches against each other, there is ample opportunity for gaps to emerge and close. The question is rather more pointed: can Arsenal close the gaps?
In that context, avoiding defeat at Stamford Bridge is going to be a good result. It would do wonders for the players belief in themselves as well, you would expect. Realistic aspirations for third place would however, require victory. To me that is not even an option at the moment, systematically overhauling teams above us has to be the aim. Anything more is going to place more pressure, more nerves on the players whose confidence appears brittle. They credit themselves for the second half performance but at the same time, the opening phase where they were on the back foot so quickly will prey on their minds. It is easy to blame the crowd for this – and no doubt this a factor – but Jonathan Wilson in Sports Illustrated tackles the subject well. Wilson, whose credentials will no doubt be questioned by those who disagree with him, notes the problems of the reciprocal relationship.
But Swansea is the key match. The Premier League does not rest on one occasion and with the squad seemingly struggling at home, which Arsenal will turn up? It is simplistic but true that the players have to conquer their own nerves, to win their own mental battles otherwise the Wenger era is ending shambolically. And that era, no matter how you like to dress it up, is in its endgame. Some would end it now, most support the theory that the goodwill previously earned decides when that happens. No matter which view you subscribe to, the perception is likely to influence more than the reality. The lack of cohesion and inability to resolve what in footballing terms, is a long-standing issue feeds the chipping away of the aura. My own view is that the football is better but such matters are reminiscent of the times when other managerial reigns have come to (in)voluntary ends. Does Wenger deserve a better legacy than this? Of course but it is up to the players to deliver for him.
They can start by finishing the job against Swansea. Almost is a frequently used word around Arsenal this season, the most recent being the first meeting with Graham’s late equaliser forcing this replay. It is tough to work out what side will take the pitch but in all likelihood, it will be somewhere between the full XI and a League Cup side. The separation of the two teams does not always work with the youth outshining their more experienced rivals in the junior domestic trophy, failures have come most recently when men have been sent to do the job that boys were deemed unsuitable for. It didn’t pan out that way against Birmingham or Bradford.
This time around, there are players who look in desperate need of rests. Thomas Vermaelen observed that the players are used to three matches each week and most are being rotated. Others such as Santi Cazorla just look knackered. For the peripherals such as Ramsey, Jenkinson and Coquelin, this is the sort of game that they need to play, to bring their match sharpness up. But Wenger cannot make too many changes otherwise the cohesion is lost entirely. There is a fine balancing act and too often the FA Cup has been sacrificed to rotation that goes a step too far. Having reversed the policy in the League Cup, it would be nice to see this happen in the more senior cup as well.
Elsewhere, Mohammed Diame is the latest bargain basement signing touted for Arsenal. It seems that support for the player stems largely from Arsenal’s visit to Upton Park. Personally, I haven’t paid enough attention to the player to observe whether he would be a good signing or otherwise but I am sure that he will send goosebumps up as many arms as raise a “meh” of indifference. Rumours of a promising young Hungarian called Hidegkuti are reaching ACLF towers. We’ll look further into those claims during the day.