It’s out of our hands, but winning our remaining games gives Arsenal the slimmest of hopes of retaining a top-4 league finish and what many consider to be “minimum requirements” for an Arsene Wenger managed team. There are two league matches left to be played, the first a make-up game against already relegated Sunderland. We play it because of the FA Cup run that sees Arsenal in the final of that tournament, a third remaining match which likely overshadows this one and the league finale on Sunday vs Everton.
In many ways this match, one many Arsenal supporters have already toted up in the win column, only serves as a backdrop to the bigger dramas surrounding the club and its figurehead, Wenger. Will the manager extend his contract for another year or two? Should he be the one making that decision? Many Gooners believe that this season’s failure to maintain a title challenge combined with a humiliating dismissal from the Champions league by Bayern Munich is not at all mitigated by the FA Cup run nor the recent resurgence that has pulled us back towards the top 4. Wenger should be judged on his results and these do not meet the high standards he set earlier in his career, which has now stretched to 21 seasons. That very longevity may be at the root of the issue. Sports, for most fans at least, are about the moment at hand, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, viscerally experienced. The longer arc of a club and notions like “consistency” and “growth,” don’t scratch that sort of itch. The mood will likely hang heavy at the Emirates, a stadium, it could be argued, that Wenger himself built.
Intriguingly enough, in the opposite technical area will be a man many wished for when the first rumblings of the Wenger Out movement were being heard. At that time, Scotsman David Moyes was an overachieving manager at Everton and many thought his style was exactly what was needed at Arsenal, a team with a more continental culture which suggested that the annual return to the Champions League was more important than triumph on the domestic front. Moyes eventually left Everton for a bigger club but it was as Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand picked successor at Manchester United. To put things mildly, Moyes time at United did not go well. Sacked there in less than a year, he traveled to beautiful San Sebastien, Spain to manage Real Sociedad. Again, Moyes lasted less than a year. Now at Sunderland and headed down into the Championship, Moyes’ best days seem well behind him.
Of course, that’s the same thing many believe about Arsene Wenger and his recent tactical flexibility–switching to a three-man-at-the-back formation–all feels “too little, too late.” In fact, Wenger recently revealed that he considered such a switch as early as November, but that a lengthy unbeaten run made him hesitate. These sorts of pressures–always managing with an eye to the potential reaction of his critics–is another argument that a change of figurehead might buy a new manager and his squad a measure of good will even if results might head even further south. Superior recent results since the formation switch–six wins from seven matches, and, most recently at Stoke, a performance with plenty of verve, proivides a measure of hope that Arsenal can finish the season on a high. Win these two league matches and prevent Chelsea from completing a domestic double with an FA Cup win and Wenger might even earn himself a dose of good-will. Would that be a time to bow out or would it be a springboard to a renaissance at the club if he were to renew his contract?
For all but the hardest core of Wenger Out “supporters,” that would be the preferred outcome. The only way to get there, however, is to take them one at a time and not look past what would appear to be the easiest of all the matches in this extreme five-games-in-two-weeks flurry at the tail end of the season. Sunderland are already relegated, check. They have plenty of injuries and Moyes has promised to play some of his younger guys, check. They do not have the advantage of extra rest having played last Saturday just like Arsenal, check. On the other hand, their form in away games is not all that bad, having won one, drawn one and lost only one in their three most recent travels. Moyes’ boys might play more freely away from the Stadium of Light, a venue that perhaps shines a bit too much glare on their failed season.
As such, Wenger must not allow a sense of complacency to set in while maybe using further rotation to rest some of his players and allow others a chance to show that they might be worthy for a place in the season finale or at Wembley. Injury concerns focus on Laurent Koscielny, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez, the latter of whom was grabbing his thigh then signaling that he needed to be subbed before carrying on and scoring a very nice goal to restore a two goal lead that sealed the victory at Stoke. Is he hurt or isn’t he? Wenger says it was just a kick and not a strained hamstring as many feared. He faces a late fitness test but my suspicion is that all three players will sit this one out, though Alexis might get a bench seat just to assure supporters that he will be available for the Everton and Chelsea matches. Here’s the squad I think will start.
Subs: Ospina, Gabriel, Coquelin, Elneny, Iwobi, Alexis, Giroud
As always, it’s a shot in the dark. What do others think? How should Wenger balance all the factors at play–not only the need for a win while thinking of the matches ahead–but also the extreme scrutiny he faces whenever he brings his team onto the pitch? As always, it’s a balancing act but one with no room for error. The chance of making the top 4 is out of our hands but it will be completely lost if we cannot win this match, so win it we must.
Go on then…