Club Focus – Arsenal – Three Horse Race

Having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Stoke in the last round, Arsenal found themselves with a rare weekend off. However, rather than rueing their exit from the comeptition, they are able to reflect upon a successful, albeit unconventional, week.

In the wake of the fourth round defeat to Stoke City, Arsene Wenger was roundly criticised for his team selection and the level of performance shown. The usual arguments paraded themselves in the media as nostalgia came to the fore – Wenger’s decision to rest senior players and give some younger players match experience brought accusations that the competition was being devalued. The fact that he selected Arsenal’s most influential player and captain Cesc Fabregas to play was largely ignored as was the fact that Stoke are a Premier League side who often give Arsenal difficulties. Had the youngsters won, the headlines would have talked of impressive potential rather than a story of collapsing alternatives. The fact that Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool have all been knocked out by lower ranked teams should appease the hopeless nostalgics longing for ‘giant-killings’ and the ‘romance of the FA Cup.’ Similarly, as Arsenal now lie just six points from the summit the decision appears to be vindicated.

Admittedly the vindication for the selection only came late on Wednesday night as Abou Diaby headed Arsenal to a 1-0 win over Liverpool whilst Chelsea and United dropped points. The defeat to Chelsea hardly left Arsenal well placed to mount a title challenge, lying nine points behind the leaders, but their ability to grind out a midweek win against Liverpool renewed hope around Ashburton Grove. Arsenal knew that they had a tough schedule, facing four teams back to back all of whom aspired to Champions League qualification or lifting the Premiership title. This fact was not missed by the manager who, not for the first time this season, focused on the psychological aspects: “Nobody realises what it is to play Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool on the trot – physically and mentally it is very demanding, especially with two massive disappointments.”

Psychology is perhaps the key ingredient to Arsenal’s title push, as they undoubtedly have the quality to go all the way but have fallen short in the big encounters so far. The reward for navigating such a gruelling sequence is a perceived favourable run-in to the end of the seaon in May. The fact that they are now in contention owes largely to the fact that their title rivals both dropped points on Wednesday night. To be within six points of the leaders at the end of these fixtures is deemed by many to be a good return, and Arsenal are in an immeasurably better position after the Liverpool game than they were in before it. The manager’s comment that: “It can change quickly, but for us it is more important for us to focus on winning our next game than speaking about the title” is an accurate summary of the unpredicatable league, but pertinently, is an attempt to gather momentum and not over-burden his young side with expectation.

Another transfer window with little or no activity highlights Arsene’s steadfast belief in not only his available players, but in his whole ethos of running and managing the club. Similarly, Wenger appears to be driven by an overwhelming desire to be recognised as one of the true greats of management. For a man who is so devout in terms of his club ethos, and who also claims to keep no memorabilia of his successes and none of the medals that his teams have won, strangely he appears to be driven by other people’s perceptions of his reign. His prioritisation of the Premier League and Champions League in the face of supporters baying for silverware is reflective of his desire to be revered as a great.

It is often said that there are two indicators for determining a truly great manager, with the first being the ability to rebuild teams and forge a dynasty. This has been done as Wenger phased out the ‘old guard’ that brought the double in 1998 and went on to repeat the trick in 2002. The ‘invincibles’ team that lifted the title in 2004 was arguably the first team that was truly of Wenger’s making, with only Dennis Bergkamp and Martin Keown of the inherited players featuring regularly. Now all of the players at Arsenal are youth graduates or the manager’s signings which brings an added pressure. The second indicator is lifting the European Cup, a feat so nearly achieved in 2006 – a fact that still rankles to this day. And so Wednesday’s trip to Porto provides a tricky obstacle, but ultimately one that the manager believes his side will overcome on the road to May’s Madrid final and the prize that Wenger so craves.

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