What is Wenger saying to us?
By Tim Charlesworth
It is always wise to take the words of football managers with a pinch of salt. When they talk to the press, they know that players and opponents are listening to what they say. Passing on accurate information may not be their top priority.
I always feel its worth listening to what Arsene says. He is not particularly Machiavellian, there is usually some truth in what he says, and you can often find some deep wisdom. However, like lots of managers in the modern squad game, he is reluctant to opine on his ‘first choice’ players. For this reason, if I want to know what he really thinks of his players (and I value his opinion very highly), it pays to look at his team selections.
Although he doesn’t like to discuss the subject, it is absolutely clear that Wenger does have first choice players. Ozil is a blatant example of this. Ozil does not play every game, but the games for which he is dropped are always lesser games where Wenger feels he can win with a weaker team.
The same is true of Koscielny and Sanchez. These are obviously our strongest players, and you could probably add Bellerin, Monreal, Cech, Cazorla and Coquelin to the list of players who will always play in a big game if available. However, Wenger is never explicit about this, so if we want to work out Wenger’s ‘first choice’ team, we have to do it by deduction. His words may deceive you, but his team selections speak a clear truth. When he chooses a team he is not trying to influence anyone, he is trying to win a match (or maximise season performance in the case of rotation)
In the matches leading up to the interlull, it was particularly difficult to interpret what Wenger was telling us through his selections. We had a series of four matches in eleven days in three different competitions, and Wenger’s priorities were not clear. With the benefit now of hindsight, following the Watford game (the PL one), I am reasonably sure I understand what Wenger was doing. So here it is:
Hull away (FA Cup 6th round replay), 4-0 victory, 8th March
This was basically a rotation team. Wenger saw this as an easy game in the midst of a tough run of fixtures (the result suggests that he was right). In the centre of defence were Mertesacker and Gabriel, with Gibbs getting another game after his surprise selection in the NLD. Was Wenger trying him out, or resting a niggle for Monreal (who was on the bench for both matches, so not badly injured)? Subsequent events have suggested that Monreal was just getting a rest.
It is also interesting that Bellerin was not rotated for this match. Is this because Wenger doesn’t trust Chambers at right back, or because he feels Bellerin can physically withstand a heavy match schedule? If the latter, this is a bit worrying as Bellerin has just turned 21, and we have seen players apparently harmed by playing too much at this age. Bellerin’s extreme pace makes me wonder if he is particularly vulnerable in this respect (see Michael Owen).
In midfield, Coquelin was suspended, but may have been rotated in favour of Flamini anyway. Elneny played. It was already looking like Elneny had replaced Ramsey in the middle at this point, and subsequent events have confirmed this suspicion.
Rotation was particularly evident up front. The two wide players, Ramsey and Sanchez rotated to the bench, giving Walcott and Campbell a game. Welbeck, recently returned from injury, was rested altogether, giving Giroud a chance. Ozil was also rotated to the bench, giving Iwobi a chance at no 10. Welbeck is the interesting one here, as it seems he had now become the first choice at centre forward. Giroud’s run out against Hull was a case of rotation. It was obvious that both Giroud, and particularly Walcott, were falling short of the mark at centre forward, but not obvious that Welbeck had moved ahead of them.
Of course, we don’t see what happens in training. Hindsight seems to suggest that Welbeck had become first choice at centre forward as far back as the Tottenham match on 5th March (or even the Man U game on 28th Feb). It was not at all obvious at the time that merit, rather than rotation, was behind his selection. Welbeck’s promotion is particularly surprising because he seemed to have fallen behind both Giroud and Walcott prior to his injury last season.
Indeed, Welbeck’s priority may not have been 100% clear to Wenger when he selected him for the Man U game. He may have felt that Welbeck was his best option, but this could have perhaps changed if Welbeck had performed badly in the Man U or Tottenham games. After all, the Man U game was his first PL start for 10 months. Nonetheless, Wenger’s selection pattern shows us that by the time of the Hull game, Welbeck had clearly become first choice.
Watford home (FA Cup quarter-final), 2-1 defeat, 13th March
For this game, Chambers and Gibbs played at full back. This was clearly rotation, although it looked at the time, like Gibbs might be making a play to regain his previous priority at left back. The centre backs were Gabriel and Mertesacker again, the two senior available centre halves. Wenger doesn’t usually believe in rotating his centre backs very much, and he knew he had Koscielny to return in the near future. Coquelin and Elneny looked like first choice midfielders with Ozil at 10. Sanchez and Campbell played wide with Giroud up front. With the possible exception of Chambers at right back, this looked like a first choice team.
Hindsight suggests that four players: Chambers, Campbell, Gibbs and Giroud were all in the team due to rotation, with the Barcelona game (4 days later) in mind. Koscielny was injured, but given that he was available to play a tough game four days later in Barcelona, we must wonder if he could have played this match.
Barcelona away (CL, R16, 2nd Leg), 3-1 defeat (lost 5-1 on aggregate), 16th March
For this game, Monreal and Bellerin came back to full back, Koscielny replaced Mertesacker and Gabriel kept his place. This looks like the first choice back four that has played all season, with doubt around only the Mertesacker/Gabriel selection. In midfield, Coquelin dropped to the bench in favour of Flamini with Elneny.
This was clearly rotation, with Coquelin only recently returned (early) from a long injury. Ozil played 10 and Iwobi and Welbeck joined Sanchez in the ‘front three’. The Iwobi and Welbeck selections looked like rotations at the time, but in hindsight look like first choice picks. This is interesting. Clearly some rotation took place in both the Watford and Barcelona games, but it looks like the Watford game took the brunt of it, not the Barcelona game
Everton away (PL, game 30), 2-0 victory, 19th March
For the Everton game, the same team that played in Barcelona came out again, with the exception that Coquelin started instead of Flamini. This was starting to look like a first choice team. The team played well in Barcelona, albeit in a hopeless situation. The same team played well again against Everton and achieved a very creditable 2-0 win.
Watford (PL, game 31), 4-0 victory, 2nd April
Now Wenger’s choices were beginning to become clearer. With no game for another seven days, there was no need to rotate this time. Wenger picked exactly the same team that beat Everton. This suggests that the teams that played at Everton and Barcelona (Flamini excepted) were first choice teams. As we enter a period of seven games in six weeks, there will be very little need to rotate, and we can look forward to seeing first choice teams for the rest of the season
So what does it all mean?
If this analysis is correct, it raises some interesting questions about the Watford cup tie. This game cost us our best remaining chance of silverware. Four rotated players is nearly half the outfield team. Did Wenger gamble here and make an error? He looked very upset after the match.
If he did gamble, was if for the benefit of the Barcelona game? It can’t have been for the benefit of the Everton game because he played the same players who played in Barcelona again at Everton. If he was gambling in order to improve performance in the Nou Camp, did he really think he could win? Was he worried about the effect on morale (and negative fans) of a thrashing in the Nou Camp if he prioritised the Watford game and rotated players in Spain? Was he worried about damaging the prestige of the club if they were thrashed in Barcelona? In the end, they put up a reasonable show, but did they sacrifice the Watford cup tie in order to do so, and if so, was it worth it?
The changes to the team pose a few more interesting questions. :
- Can Welbeck maintain his selection as first choice centre forward for the rest of the season? Both Walcott and Giroud have occupied this position at various times in the season, but neither have been able to sustain performance. What implications does this have for the question of whether or not we need to buy a new centre forward in the summer?
- Can Elneny cement his place in midfield? He seems to be preferred to Ramsey in this position. What happens when Wilshere (don’t giggle) and Cazorla return? Can he hold them off?
- Is Iwobi going to keep his place? At the moment it seems to work with him on the left and Sanchez on the right. Will this change when Ramsey returns? Ramsey surely can’t play on the left, and Iwobi looks undroppable on form. Sanchez looks like he is finally getting back to form playing on the right and surely he can’t be dropped?
- Is the repositioning of Sanchez, to the right, permanent or just an experiment to accommodate Iwobi? Sanchez looks rejuvenated by the change.
- Will Gabriel continue to be selected ahead of Mertesacker? Gabriel looked like he might be ahead of Mertesacker earlier in the season, but then Mertesacker looked to return to first choice after Gabriel’s dismissal against Chelsea. Gabriel seems to have been preferred since Mertesacker’s dismissal against Chelsea, but has looked unconvincing at times. He might be the long-term answer in this position, but he still needs to prove the point.
- Will Cech get his place back? I presume he will, but Ospina has done well, and Cech was on the bench for the Watford game, so clearly fit. I presume that Cech was ‘fit enough for the bench’, but we can’t be sure about this. Wenger sometimes likes to leave a successful team unchanged, and with only seven games in six weeks for the rest of the season, there is no need to rotate.
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From the Arsenal History Society