With the last shrill peep of the referee’s whistle on Sunday, the curtain came down on the Premier League campaign. Ordinarily a time for exhalation, releasing the previous nine months into the ether and consigning them to become ink on paper in a monolith of statistics.
And now we await the dénouement. Wembley beckons and decisions have to be made. Football is an industry – is anything professional just a sport nowadays? – which is notoriously short-term and Arsène has a short time to make them. Four days if you want to be precise.
Except that barring injuries, I think he’s already made the majority, if not all of them. I hope he has; the last few weeks have surely been building up to this moment. The Premier League encounters occupied his immediate thoughts, the questions over each player’s fitness needing an answer as he slowly and belatedly, shuffled the pack for Sunday’s encounter with West Brom and whilst he discarded the XI as a team “the team who [I thought] had a good chance to win“, it’s hard not to read something into his choices.
More questions arose from that final game than answers. From Wojciech Szczesny’s exclusion from the starting line-up to Theo Walcott’s inclusion. Talking after the match, Wenger enthused about Walcott’s hat-trick and how he performed as a central striker. Noticeably, Arsène used Theo as a replacement for Giroud against Swansea; it wasn’t an unmitigated success with the players not attuned to his arrival. Getting the team prepared for Wembley? The logic – Wenger’s previous big plays of loyalty to players who got him to the moment – points to Giroud starting but a hat-trick and the movement from Walcott suggests otherwise.
The same with Szczesny. It’s hard to see a logical reason why, if he is playing at Wembley, he didn’t start on Sunday. Wenger gave Fabianski ninety minutes at Carrow Road for match sharpness. Maybe Arsène doesn’t think Szczesny needs it but that’s a gamble, quite a big one given the edge to the Pole’s performance in the semi-final. A non-appearance would certainly set the tone for the summer.
And it’s going to be quite an important summer. Arsène’s already railed against the new season and the planning for it. Chief culprits were FIFA who sanctioned the Copa America and there is an element of that, especially as there is a centenary edition of the tournament next year; two in two years seems excessive but FIFA is an organisation which admires CONMEBOL’s excesses.
However, these tournaments have been scheduled for a number of years and Arsène knew about them when he signed Ospina and Sanchez. Indeed, the Copa America has always been held in ‘awkward’ summers for English clubs but it has never stopped them buying South American players. It’s a bit rich to complain when the conditions already existed at the time of purchase.
Could the FA and Premier League have restructured their fixture calendars to accommodate a later start? Probably but with Euro2016 starting on 10th June 2016 and the Champions League final on 28th May, their window of opportunities are sparse. I know, cutting the February international friendlies out of the calendar accomplished that but national associations need to grasp at some of the cash football generates. Well, they don’t need to but they are going to.
Ultimately, knowing in advance that he won’t be seeing either of his South American players until early August ought to have Wenger planning ahead now to ensure that the impact of their absences is minimised. Their preparation for the new season will be straight in at the deep end, returning to training just before the Premier League season begins but after the Community Shield if Arsenal participate. No luxurious trips to Singapore to have lumps kicked off them by Premier League rivals.
Arsenal ought to be able to cope without Alexis for a short while. It’s hardly any different than him being out through injury, after all. Ospina? A competent second choice goalkeeper will cover or if the Colombian drops down the pecking order, you need your third choice on the bench for a week or two which only becomes a hardship if you have to use him.
I know Wenger wants his best players available to him – we all do – but that’s the nature of modern football. As clubs look further afield to invest their moneys in players who can make a difference, it becomes more of an issue yet no as bad as the impact the African Cup of Nations had previously. It’s up to the manager to plan now to accommodate this interference in his preparations so that the quick start to the next Premier League campaign that he talks of needing, actually happens. If it doesn’t, excuses about Copa America interfering with preparations are going to seem a little thin.
Then again, this is all just practice. The big one comes in 2022 when three seasons of club football will be impacted by the Qatar World Cup. What the lasting impact of that on and off the pitch will be, remains to be seen.