“We have to face the critics and accept it”, said Arsene Wenger ahead of Wednesday’s crucial Champions League group A encounter against Paris Saint-Germain. The Frenchman has always welcomed criticism against his team if it’s backed up with clear statistical evidence.
A lethargic display at Old Trafford on Saturday where Wenger faced his old foe Jose Mourinho didn’t need numbers to back up the criticism from outside. Not only was it an underwhelming performance from a team who had only lost one game all season, but it summed up the fear and hold that Mourinho has over his managerial arch rival.
The tactics went against Wenger’s usual attack-minded footballing philosophy. His decision to field a defensive duo in Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny as central midfield partners played into Mourinho’s hands. For someone who has become renowned for ‘parking the bus’ in huge fixtures the defensiveness of Arsenal’s midfield allowed the Portuguese to set-up a side capable of forging counterattacking opportunities - while even Wayne Rooney appeared to be invigorated during a second half cameo.
The match had many similarities to the reverse fixture with PSG at Parc des Princes back in September. Firstly, Arsenal played poorly throughout and looked as if they were on the verge of losing another big European tie and, secondly, it required a late equaliser from Alexis Sanchez to secure an undeserved point for the Gunners.
A bullet header from Olivier Giroud on was enough to salvage a draw for Arsenal against Mourinho’s men - but they’ll need to do more against PSG if they want top spot in Group A.
Injuries usually hit Arsenal at this time of year and the timeframe on Santi Cazorla’s injury is currently unknown. Hector Bellerin is out for at least a month while Alexis Sanchez continues to play and surpass all fitness expectations. Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey spent their Tuesday morning training in the gym at Arsenal’s London Colney training centre, but both are expected to be involved for the match itself.
Indeed, the fine margins in football have been shown this week with Giroud’s late equaliser and the news that Bellerin has put pen to paper on a new long-term contract emphasises just how positive things are looking for Wenger’s side this season. They have a long way to go and need to continue building momentum and consistency in their results, but they are certainly capable of challenging for a major trophy this season.
Upcoming games against Bournemouth in the Premier League and Southampton in the quarter-final of the EFL Cup represent unique challenges. Cherries boss Eddie Howe has been touted as a potential replacement for Wenger when his contract expires at the end of the season and he’ll be desperate to impress in what many will see as a dress rehearsal for one of the biggest jobs in football. Meanwhile, the EFL Cup remains another opportunity to win a domestic trophy which many have belittled and laughed at - but supporters will certainly have no problem in winning.
It’s time for Arsenal to showcase the performances that have got their supporters so excited in recent weeks. Six goals against the Bulgarian champions is wonderful but means nothing unless you go onto mount a serious trophy challenge.
Wenger’s side have it all to prove in the coming games and he’ll be desperate for ‘the most mature’ team he has ever managed to show how experienced and calm under pressure they really are.