How do you set out to win a match in a no-win situation? How can you muster the fight against another ugly Tony Pulis team in a half empty stadium of nervous and demanding fans? Can Wenger and his players stop the rot or do we have further down to go before we find rock bottom?
Over to you, Arsene…
It could easily be argued that our season began its first descent towards this current miserable state of affairs in the reverse fixture, a 2-1 loss at the Hawthorns. In that one, Arsenal lost defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin and his back-up, Mikel Arteta, to injury. Confusion at the back was the order of the day and a free kick goal put in by James Morrison was quickly followed by an Arteta own goal near the end of the first half. As became a pattern for the season, a winning position–the result of an Olivier Giroud header from an early Mesut Ozil free kick,the German’s record breaking 7th consecutive match with at least one assist–had been reversed.
Arsenal dominated the second half and finally had a late chance to get something from the match when Alexis Sanchez won a penalty. Unfortunately, Santi Cazorla’s standing foot slipped and he sent the would-be equalizer over. A week later, at Norwich City, Arsenal would lose both players to injury. Alexis returned a couple of months later but has only recently begun to look the player we remember, albeit with a bit more frustration on his face than I recall. Santi has yet to return but supposedly is back in training. Of the DMs lost on the day, Coquelin actually came back ahead of schedule, but Arteta has yet to reappear in an Arsenal shirt.
None of that matters, however, to many Gooners, spoiled perhaps by the consistency our club has delivered over the years and the somewhat miraculous recovery the team made from those late November injuries. Digging deeper into the squad and relying on guys like Joel Campbell and Mathieu Flamini, in place of Alexis and Santi, Arsenal recovered, and, with a grit and determination it’s hard to recall, steadied our league campaign and came from well back in our Champions league group to qualify for the eliminations. By the turn of the calendar year, Arsenal were top of the league and in the round of sixteen. Having survived our injury crisis, things were looking up.
It was not to be. Minus a couple of good come-from-behind results against the two teams who will compete for the title (Leicester and Tottenham) it’s been almost all down-hill since. As we’ve fallen out of the title hunt and been eliminated in the FA Cup and Champions league, the atmosphere surrounding the club has grown ever more toxic. First came a run in late-January and early February: draws at Liverpool and Stoke followed by a home loss to Chelsea and a frustrating nil-nil at home with Southampton. Naive play–also in the home stadium–made advancing against Barcelona in the CL just about impossible after shipping two goals to the holders. The real killer, however, were back-to-back league losses, 3-2 to Manchester United at Old Trafford and then–again from a winning position–to Swansea City at the Emirates. Unexpected elimination in the FA Cup at home to Watford set the home crowd fully on edge.
Playing the so-called “lesser competition” in the home stadium, for all the bigger clubs, is always difficult as the full points–and a dominant performance–are always expected. I’d argue that it’s worse at Arsenal given that our principal shareholder, Stan Kroenke, sees winning in terms of dollars and cents (even if the home support buy their season tickets in pounds sterling). Results on the balance sheet seem to matter more than those on the pitch. At this time of year, with the league title out of reach, those that choose to show up often do so because they paid so much for the privilege. This leads to an empty stadium with many of the fans who do show up eager to turn on those at Arsenal who aren’t delivering the performances and results they paid to see. This disjuncture between a club and its support, as between any company and its customers, has led to a state of extreme discontent. In normal corporate relations the response is to stop buying the product. In sport, with its deeper loyalties, it can be a more difficult process. In football, the manager usually absorbs the pressure and the club finds a measure of relief in sacking their figurehead. At Arsenal, for better or worse, no such mechanism exists.
Indeed, it might be better to see Wenger’s relationship to his club as a life partnership, such is the way he has married his own personal legacy to the long-term success of the club. The raised expectations that make calls for his head reflexive with each cup we exit or point we drop are a testament to the benchmarks and success he has achieved for the club.
In the end it’s a very perverse sort of support. When Arsenal take the pitch vs WBA they will face not only a team which has already beaten them this season and will be hungry for points ahead of a trip to the grittier part of North London (Spurs) on Sunday, but also a crowd ready to turn hostile at the first opportunity. A win and sparkling performance–if somehow they are produced–will probably only earn a sense of respite from the disease eating at our club and a polite ‘golf-clap’ from the crowd. Who cares if we’ll be jumping back ahead of Manchester City and into third? The gap to the top two–one a local rival who hasn’t finished above us during Wenger’s nearly two decades at the club–is already too large.
And that’s if we prevail…
Overcoming the hostile atmosphere and getting the win thus becomes automatically tougher. A concurrent problem is that Wenger’s team selection is fraught with public relation traps. On the one hand, young players are generally given a longer leash than more richly compensated players who have disappointed, but they are also learning on the job and can lose confidence quickly–a very tough situation when any mistake is punished by your own supporters. Going behind in this one is just about unthinkable, but surely no lead is safe as well. Does Wenger defend first and hope to nick a goal or does he play a more all out attack and simply commit to outscoring the Baggies?
Does he stick with more newly emerging players like Alex Iwobi, Danny Welbeck, Gabriel Paulista, Mohamed Elneny and Coquelin or does he resort to more tried and true (or already condemned) veterans like Aaron Ramsey, Olivier Giroud, Flamini and Per Mertesacker? Maybe a fresh face (even if only on the bench) attempting a late season return from injury (Tomas Rosicky or Jack Wilshere) could help or perhaps mixing things up with other youngsters who haven’t seen much recent playing time (Campbell, Callum Chambers). I have no idea, but here’s the group of gladiators I think AW might send into the ring:
Subs: Ospina, Chambers, Mertesacker, Rosicky, Iwobi, Campbell, Giroud
That group, including the subs (and careful observers should note the ones missing who might also be gone over the summer) seems a reasonable blend between Wenger’s conservatism and his need for a strong squad that can both defend and attack. Dropping Iwobi to the bench seems as tough as his earlier decision to severely reduce Campbell’s playing time. Getting Ramsey back into the mix seems important but having him replace either Coquelin or Elneny in the middle of the pitch seems a risky ploy. What about Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs and Flamini or others I’ve left out entirely? Like I said above, who knows, and your guess is as good as mine.
West Brom, as with any Tony Pulis team, will be tough to break down at the back and will play for free kicks and corners where they can send their big men up. They will miss Morrison and Chris Brunt in midfield but have plenty of quality in Darren Fletcher and guys who some Gooners might take in our squad such as Stephane Sessegnon, Salomon Rondon and Saido Berahino, the latter of whom is back to his best (except, perhaps, from the penalty spot) and will be wanting to showcase his game for a move away from the black country. Callum McManaman, just back from injury, is also very quick and good at beating fullbacks and getting crosses in when on the ball. If he plays, Pulis might opt for bigger targets up front like veterans Victor Anichebe and Rickie Lambert.
Anybody who thinks West Brom at home should be a walkover is failing to acknowledge the difficulty of our club’s current condition as well as forgetting the reverse fixture. Pulis and his boys (on the magic 40 points) may be just about safe from relegation but they will also be licking their lips at a(nother) chance to deepen Arsenal’s misery as will the even more desperate relegation fighting clubs (Sunderland and Norwich City) we face in quick succession.
We play them one at a time, of course, so all I know is that, small and insufficient as it might be, this Arsenal team needs a win, a decent performance, and an uptick of almost any sort.
Go on then…