at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
After falling down in Liverpool, Arsene Wenger must stop his team from falling apart against Manchester United.
It may not seem the daunting task it has been in the past, but the mind can play tricks on Arsenal as they flirt with another February collapse.
Ever since a dreadful day in Birmingham in February 2008, when Croatian forward Eduardo broke his leg and another title chase began to fizzle out, Wenger’s better campaigns have often unravelled at astonishing speed at about this time of year.
As the Champions League stirs from hibernation and the FA Cup reaches its vital stages, Arsenal fret about burn-out, rest players, muddle priorities and another empty season eclipses hope and ambition.
After Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing at Liverpool, the same fears will haunt the Emirates tomorrow regardless of the fact United’s problems are far more serious.
Wenger flew into a rage during the half-time interval at Anfield when his team came in 4-0 down, but was more composed at the final whistle. His message to his players was simple: ‘You owe the club and the fans a reaction.’
The manager is expected to make a couple of changes with the axe likely to fall on Nacho Monreal, while he must make a big decision about Mesut Ozil.
Ozil was criticised for his contribution at Anfield and, according to the Arsenal medical team, he is close to the ‘red zone’ — when fatigue creeps in and players are more exposed to injury.
The £42million signing from Real Madrid has not settled comfortably into life in London and despite an encouraging start has not been satisfied with his own recent form.
Olivier Giroud is another who has been advised to reduce his training schedule to compensate for having missed only two of 33 games in the Barclays Premier League and Champions League.
No outfield players have started more games than Giroud in the two big competitions — Wayne Rooney has started 24 and Robin van Persie only 16. For many, this underlines the folly of Arsenal’s failure to recruit another striker in January.
Centre halves Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have also played almost every game and, with goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny ever-present in the league and Champions League, this regular line-up has helped lift Arsenal to within a point of the Premier League leaders.
Yet big decisions loom. Three days after United comes an FA Cup rematch with Liverpool, followed by a Champions League first leg against Bayern Munich. Next month includes the return in Munich and away games at Tottenham, Chelsea and Everton as well as Manchester City at home.
If Wenger does rest Ozil he can turn to other creative players. Losing Giroud, Mertesacker or Koscielny takes more from the team. There is then the psychological risk of weakening the side and inviting defeat. Every point is vital and the FA Cup fifth-round tie against Liverpool has added significance after the result at Anfield. Resting players in the Cup has backfired in the past.
Dropping two points at Birmingham is usually cited as the start of the infamous 2008 collapse, but problems were set earlier when Wenger sent out a young team in the FA Cup at Manchester United to keep key players fresh for a Champions League game against AC Milan.
Arsenal lost 4-0 at Old Trafford and drew with Milan before they conceded the last-minute equaliser from a penalty at St Andrew’s, lost impetus and finished third, four points behind champions United. Wenger has not finished within 10 points of the title since, and has not won a trophy since 2005. Last year’s hopes vanished with two defeats in four days at home to Blackburn and Bayern.
It was an echo of the previous season, when a 4-0 thrashing in Milan preceded an FA Cup exit at Sunderland. In 2011, a Wembley defeat by Birmingham in the Carling Cup final sparked a run of one win in seven games but this campaign has felt different. There have been signs of more resolve. Different individuals have stepped forward. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rescued them against Crystal Palace, Santi Cazorla against Fulham and Nicklas Bendtner against Cardiff.
The defeat at Liverpool was chastening. Mikel Arteta called it ‘a car crash’ and Mertesacker ‘one of the worst setbacks of this season’. Pride was damaged but it came after a run of eight wins and a draw — itself an impressive reaction to four games without a win in December.
This team has more character and more quality than recent Arsenal models but this is the big test. They must prove it. Can they react? Or will they embrace the usual excuses and tumble into another February freefall. – Daily Mail