I am sure Nicklas Bendtner could give Arsène advice on how to quench his thirst if the manager asked politely enough. The Dane after all, has shown greater prowess in the bar than on the training pitch as his Arsenal career winds down to an ignominious end, injury bringing about a similarly undistinguished departure from the club as many before him. And frankly, not many tears are being shed, certainly not in this household anyway.
Arsenal are onto better things, the FA Cup has suddenly rediscovered its glamour and like the Holy Grail, it shines like a beacon for the knights of the boardroom table to bring home. The scent of Wembley has changed perspectives and fourth place no longer feels like a trophy when Arsène can sense he is close to getting his hands on a proper one; the FA Cup is now a priority. Anyone who says that the romance of the competition is dead hasn’t spoken to the manager but you sense he’s missed a trick. There haven’t been many shock results this season where the big clubs have fallen by the wayside. Except for Wigan’s win over Manchester City, the rest of the top seven or eight in the Premier League have been knocked out by teams in the Premier League. Indeed, Manchester United are the only team in the top six not to have been knocked out by Arsenal or City. It’s more a case of pop has eaten itself than anything else.
It wouldn’t be a big game if there weren’t injury worries for Arsenal and this weekend is no different. Arsène’s optimism that Laurent Koscielny proved to be as misplaced as any of Bendtner’s shots with the Frenchman now not likely to return to action until Tuesday at the earliest. Meanwhile Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby all look to be returning in time to prove their fitness for the World Cup in Brazil and a vague hope that if the rest of the squad don’t screw it up tomorrow, they might get an FA Cup final thrown in for good measure. It doesn’t help with the semi-final though and you sense that excuses are being readied if it all goes a bit pear-shaped against Wigan.
Talking of the 2005 final, Wenger’s pragmatism on the day won the trophy. It doesn’t matter if you deserve to win the match when you get to that stage, just that you do but what a contrast to this season he offered,
It was the only way we could win it. At the start, I didn’t set up like that and suddenly they were all over us. I realised that physically we were not able to compete, so I said, ‘‘OK, let’s defend as long as we can’’.
Would that he had shown such adaptability at Stamford Bridge or Anfield. Had he done so, there might be whisperings of a double. Of course the performance was the antithesis of the beautiful game in which he believes so firmly and being that principled is an undeniably admirable trait but when there is a flexibility to stray from that path, to adapt strategies to resources available, there is a better chance of winning. This weekend, Arsène will have to re-adopt that approach with injuries dictating who is available. It appears that there may be one or two less than hoped for. Rosicky, Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain are all struggling with knocks and rated 50/50. In Wenger-ese, that means that they can be aware from a slight limp to having their legs hanging off, it doesn’t really tell us anything and more to the point, leaves Uwe Rosler wondering what they are smoking at London Colney to have such bad injury luck.
One bright spot is Aaron Ramsey’s recovery. According to the manager, it is complete and the Welsh international is ready to start a match. More to the point, he is starting the match as Mathieu Flamini is suspended. Cardiff City may be worrying about a spy in the camp but Wigan can happily plan today knowing that the line-up has been told to them bar one place. Unless of course, the mind games have begun and surreptitiously, players have regained fitness and tomorrow sees the strongest Arsenal starting line-up this side of Christmas. No, I’m not willing to hold my breath for that one or wager any money on it. I think the manager has told the truth on the state of the squad.
But I wonder if he is trying to instil a siege mentality in the players. Those of a certain age will remember how good George Graham was at creating that atmosphere. Of course, the players helped by having points deductions and fines levied on them every now and then. Talk of how the officials were against Arsenal at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park is so wide of the mark and at odds with the reality, that trying to create a ‘them and us’ scenario is surely Arsène’s ploy. He cannot genuinely believe that the matches were decided by poor decisions; Arsenal’s performances were so bad on those days as to be consistent.
That he was able to identify another common theme in those big matches suggests it was a genuine attempt to deflect pressure from the players. Wenger noted that “when you don’t start strong you always put yourself in a dangerous situation” and that is exactly the position they have found themselves in during the four games since Stamford Bridge. In the case of City and Swansea the squad had the strength and took the opportunities presented, to fight back to take a point in each match. Welcome as those points were, especially against the title favourites, they have not stopped the rot which has set in and which baffles Arsène,
What has been strange in our season is that for a long time we looked very strong defensively, we had an outstanding defensive record, and we lost it suddenly. That’s the surprise of the season for me,
It’s an unwelcome gift from the players and one that he has yet to understand the causes. Whilst that is concerning, the root of it all is the dismemberment of their confidence and the failure to regain any semblance of belief. The players are struggling and whatever message he and his coaching staff are trying to impart, quite simply Arsène, it isn’t getting through. Only the players can answer that and the reasons for it don’t have to be public knowledge, there is no case for it to be so. What should be public knowledge is the resolution of the problem and we will know that by the results, by the performances on the pitch. A good time to start with that will be 5.07pm BST, tomorrow night.