By Tim Charlesworth
There was much gnashing of teeth at the Ems last Tuesday. Of course general disappointment and frustration were the cause of much of it. But some unhappiness emerged even before the kick-off. Some gooners were both surprised and disappointed to see Flamini start ahead of Coquelin and Elneny*. I wasn’t surprised. It is normal Wenger practice to ease in players who are returning from injury, or new to the country. Two games in three days for either would have been a surprise to me.
What seemed to get less attention, was that Gabriel had taken Mertesacker’s place in defence on Tuesday and then again against Bournemouth. This was both surprising and predictable. It was surprising because Mertesacker has seemed to be preferred to Gabriel for most of the season.
It was predictable because this was the third time this season that Wenger has rewarded a player for being sent off by dropping them. Wenger was keen to verbally defend Mertesacker after his dismissal against Chelsea, but it seems that actions speak louder than words. It has ever been thus with Wenger. At one point his ability to defend dismissed players was legendary and the source of some mirth (we all fondly remember the ‘I didn’t see it’ period).
Wenger has always been massively reluctant to criticise players in public, and we sometimes confuse this with his real feelings. ‘Le prof’ may be good at internalising his anger and frustration, but that doesn’t mean he is immune from those emotions. For example, last season following the Southampton game (new bogey team), Wenger was clearly absolutely livid with Szczesny. He came as close to saying ‘you will never play for Arsenal again son’ as Wenger will ever get. And this threat has basically been carried out. Wenger’s public criticism of Szczesny was relatively mild, but I’m prepared to bet that behind the scenes it was a different matter.
There have been four red cards this season. Two straight reds and two double yellows. Let’s have a look at them in chronological order:
Giroud (Dinamo Zagreb away, CL1, 16th September 2015, two yellows) – this was a bad one. The second yellow was for an over-exuberant challenge. This is forgiveable in a competitive player, but the first one was for dissent, and entirely unnecessary. This is the sort of thing that winds managers up, and the circumstances were particularly unfortunate.
Wenger is not very good at rotating. This often creates a problem for Arsenal . During the first part of the season, Arsenal are effectively playing more games than the teams that they are playing against, and that is a disadvantage in terms of fatigue and injuries.
During the first three months of the season, we play Premiership teams who do not have to fit in an extra six CL games in the autumn (or eight if we finished fourth the previous season and had to play the qualifying round). We also play CL games against teams (like Bayern) who play in less competitive domestic leagues than us, and can therefore afford to rotate their teams in league games.
Our traditional November blip is at least partly attributable to this problem. November marks the end of the Champions League group stage, and by then, we are playing teams that have significantly fewer games ‘in their legs’ than we do. The obvious answer to this problem is to have a deep squad (as we did before all the injuries) and to rotate the team.
For the Dinamo game, Wenger had the courage to overcome his natural shyness with regard to rotation. It was a risk, and it didn’t pay off. Giroud got sent off against Dinamo and we lost. As a result of this failure (and Olympiacos at home), we had to play first choice teams and expend 100% effort for the rest of the CL group games. The inevitable result was a run of bad injuries and defeats in November. Arguably these problems were all a direct result of Olivier Giroud’s stupidity in Zagreb.
Following the Zagreb game, Walcott was picked ahead of Giroud at no 9 consistently, until Walcott was injured. Giroud then came back in and kept his place by dint of form (good for him, poor for Walcott) and goalscoring.
In this context, it is also worth noting that Ospina was pretty harshly treated following his mistake against Olympiacos, which also contributed to the same problem. It seems pretty clear that Ospina had been promised a start in all our CL games. This was presumably part of the deal under which he agreed to stay following the Cech sigining. This use of the reserve keeper in CL games is becoming increasingly common in European football (Real Madrid won the CL in 2014 following this policy). Again, Wenger defended him in public, but Ospina was dropped after Olympiacos and hasn’t appeared in a CL, or PL game since.
Gabriel (Chelsea, away, PL6, 19th September 2015, straight red, rescinded on review)– It looks to me as if the ‘Gabriel v Mertesacker’ decision has been on a knife edge all season. Mertesacker has had the better of it, probably due to his established partnership with the Boss. Mertesacker also brings other qualities of leadership, height etc. However, Gabriel has often looked the more accomplished defender on the pitch.
Mertesacker had the nod for the early games. He then got the flu and missed PL game 3 against Liverpool. Gabriel came in, played well, and seemed to keep his place (it wasn’t clear exactly when Mertesacker regained fitness). But then Garbriel got sent off against Chelsea. This cost us again, losing a match that we should have won. Gabriel was certainly culpable for his sending off (even if Costa was more culpable).
It was very upsetting due to Wenger’s dislike of Chelsea and Mourinho, and particularly frustrating on top of Giroud’s dismissal three days earlier. You can see why Wenger was upset and despite Gabriel’s exoneration by the FA, Wenger didn’t seem to forgive Gabriel for letting the team down. Mertesacker certainly seemed to return to his starting berth after the Chelsea game.
Cazorla (Chelsea, away, PL6, 19th September 2015, second yellow)– this was a pretty innocuous dismissal for a second yellow. Cazorla was chasing a lost cause, a little over enthusiastically. His tackle actually showed a bit of character. I don’t think anyone was really annoyed with him.
Mertesacker (Chelsea, home, PL23, 24th January 2016, straight red) – If Mertesacker got his place back from Gabriel following Gabriel’s red card against Chelsea, has the opposite now happened? Has Mertesacker’s red card against Chelsea now tipped the balance in Gabriel’s favour? Certainly the player was culpable. The tackle on Costa was a mistake.
Wenger didn’t appear angry with Mertesacker immediately afterwards, but then as we know, you cannot rely on what Wenger says in public on such occasions. If this is the case, Gabriel didn’t seem to have his best game against Southampton (albeit a clean sheet kept). If the decision is on a knife edge, it will be interesting to see if Mertesacker gets his place back against Bournemouth.
*Footnote from the editors: in recent days we’ve been told that Elneny’s wife is expecting a child, so his absence of late has probably been compassionate leave as much as anything, especially if the couple are living in a hotel. It doesn’t change the point made above, but we thought we’d throw that in.
Two recent anniversaries
8 February 2012: Johan Djourou signed a contract extension to 2015 but left before the end to go to Hanover, having played 86 games over a ten year period. He later moved on a permanent deal with Hamburg.
8 February 2014: The run of 6 wins and 2 draws in 8, since the 6-3 defeat to Man C ends with a 5-1 defeat to Liverpool. Arsenal were four down in 20 minutes. It was one of three big defeats (the third was the loss to Chelsea) which came to define the season.
Last night’s report
The Untold Books
The latest Untold book is Arsenal: The Long Sleep 1953-1970 with an introduction by Bob Wilson, available both as a paperback and as a Kindle book from Amazon. Details of this and our other titles can be found at Arsenal Books on this site.