As Arsène wrestles with the aftermath of defeat to Bayern, the immediate questions in his mind concern the physical and mental impact on the squad. An hour spent chasing the ball must have been tortuously draining on the outfield players, with little or no light relief available as injuries and Szczesny’s red card used the three available substitutes. It will be no surprise to see all of the outfield players who began the match on the bench, starting against Sunderland. In years past, that would have been an ominous feeling but with the likes of Rosicky, Podolski and Giroud (if he is mentally ready), alongside Santi Cazorla, offer a strong set of alternatives.
Per Mertesacker observed that the defeat must not be allowed to affect this weekend’s performance and is confident that it won’t,
“We have to switch on quickly again on Saturday in an important game in the Premier League and get the three points and after that we have a little break. We need that because we have played a lot of games. Our team has great spirit and will come back from this.”
There are many positives to come out of Wednesday’s defeat, centering on the spirit and effort but also individuals such as Wilshere responding to the circumstances with the type of performance that has maybe been missing for a while. Yaya Sanogo continued his promising start, as well, something for the manager to draw on rather than dwelling on the problems. One of which, I hasten to add, is not Mesut Özil. Criticism of his penalty is valid, it was awful but some of the comments on anti-social media were just abysmal, feeding more stories in the media such as this morning’s Daily Heil attempt to fuel the notion of a breach of spirit in the Arsenal camp. Frankly, it’s just pathetic and if internet trolls are the future, God help humanity because its nappy needs changing.
When he looks beyond Saturday – something which has probably already happened – does Arsène feel the landscape of Arsenal’s season has altered, has his sense of priorities succumbed to pragmatism? Wenger has made no secret that before each campaign, his primary ambition is to win the Premier League or achieve a top four finish. That is followed by the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup in that order, as grabbing his attention. With a two-goal deficit to retrieve in Munich, at the home of the World and European champions, has his sense of the achievable shifted?
The upcoming fixture list was always difficult, different from last year in that involvement in the FA Cup has extended into March with a semi-final place a realistic ambition. The first three games in that list take place in eight days, after there are clear weeks between fixtures offering plenty of time for players to rest. At the same time, the rest of the top four have few difficult fixtures in the same spell. Indeed, Manchester City appear to have few fixtures at all with domestic cup competitions meaning that this weekend’s home meeting with Stoke is their last Premier League match until they visit Hull on March 15th. If it is any consolation, before they arrive at The Emirates, they visit Old Trafford on the preceding Tuesday. That is not Arsenal’s concern, they remain in the business of gathering as many points as possible, hoping to capitalise on any slips by Chelsea and City’s inactivity.
|Opponents (Home games in bold)|
|EVERTON (FAC QF)|
|FA Cup Semi-Final|
For Arsène, he has to choose whether he believes lightning can strike twice or if sacrificing the second leg of the Champions League by resting key players is more beneficial to the domestic campaign, which offer his best route of success. A similar philosophy, born of poor domestic form, produced an outstanding result in Munich last season. History can repeat itself of course but no-one should rely on that. As much as Arsenal will look at last season for hope, Bayern will look to learn that lesson although their final group match with Manchester City offers a glimpse that maybe they have not. Realistically, the manager whilst fielding a team which he believes can win, will surely have more than half an eye on the visit to White Hart Lane five days later.
It isn’t that black and white of course. A win in the Champions League could prove as inspirational as last season, it might give the Premier League campaign an unstoppable impetus. Defeat would hardly be damaging; the players will have accepted that progressing to the quarter-finals is an unlikely outcome, even if that will never be publicly admitted without being couched in terms that offer hope and belief, on their part at least.
For Arsène, the issue is more on the impact of injuries, fatigue and the return of those who are currently on the sidelines. The breaks between games will help, they allow recovery and recuperation for the fit. The problem is that any niggles or knocks exacerbate the situation and tired players are more susceptible to these. No immediate respite is appearing on the horizon; Aaron Ramsey is targeting the visit to Chelsea as a possible return date; it leads to hope that maybe he is being cautious and he may make the visit to Tottenham. History suggests that footballers tend to be overly optimistic and whilst I am not suggesting Ramsey is being that, any earlier seems unlikely mores the pity. Kim Kallstrom is, well, who knows; back injuries can be notoriously difficult to heal.
The FA Cup tie against Everton will, I think, dictate a lot of the manager’s thinking about the following games. It is a significant change to last season and so far, Arsène has picked strong sides for these matches. Had there been any sort of lead to defend in Munich, I suspect that he would have been tempted to rotate a little for the quarter-final. As it is, surely that demands his strongest XI, particularly as Everton will view the cup in surely the same light as we do; this season, it is an eminently winnable trophy. You would expect a rip-roaring cup-tie at The Emirates; one, like Liverpool, in the best traditions of the competition’s history. If that happens, it will be a physically demanding affair and to be blunt, resting players ahead of the North London Derby should, in my mind, be the priority.
Let’s not fool ourselves. Winning the Champions League is beyond the squad at this moment; that may come in future years but not this season. For the first time in half a decade, Arsenal have a chance of the Premier League title or the FA Cup; those seem realistic aspirations at this stage of the season and pursuing them should be the focus. Perhaps its time for the Champions League to slip to third place in the list of four?