History tells Arsène Wenger how FA Cup exit can derail a season

Arsenal manager knows losing to Spurs may harm league push but has to balance that with protecting his players

There are worse things than a hard draw in the FA Cup. Arsenal play Tottenham Hotspur this afternoon, at home, knowing that of the 63 possible opponents few would be more dangerous, or would take more out of their drained players. But the difficulty and importance of the match should help to focus minds, which has been a problem before.

What it also does, though, is present Arsène Wenger with a problem with which he has struggled in the past: just how important is the FA Cup, and how far should he risk his title challenge in pursuit of it?

Last year, in the fifth round, Arsenal were gifted a home tie against Michael Appleton’s Blackburn Rovers. They failed to focus and were beaten 1-0, their best shot at a trophy gone again. In a difficult season, it was almost as bad as it got.

Arsenal are a better team now, but they will still certainly need to fight to beat Tim Sherwood’s revitalised Spurs. That requirement is no bad thing. “We have not drawn a small team,” Wenger said last night, “so we are warned that it will just be another top-level game. That is the advantage of having a big opponent, your team is focused naturally.”

Wenger knows that the Blackburn result last year was not his finest hour. With seven changes, the wrong message was sent, and not for the first time. “In the case of Blackburn at home, you always say to your players, ‘Be careful’, and they think, ‘OK, if you do your job you win your match and you go through.’

“We were a bit unlucky, because they only had one shot and they scored. After 15 years we had never gone out against a team from a lower division, so that was a good learning process. But that is not the danger tomorrow. The players know this will be a big game.”

Arsenal were not helped that day by the looming prospect of the arrival of Bayern Munich, three days after Blackburn. This year, at least, they have eight days off before a rather less daunting game against Aston Villa.

“We had won against Swansea before [in the third round], and that was a tough game, and also Bayern was just behind. The players thought, ‘Ok, let’s just win, let’s just get through,’ because there is a massive game after that. That is a natural reaction but it doesn’t work like that.”

Arsenal were beaten that day by a Blackburn side who had won four of their previous 14 Championship games and were stuck in mid-table. It was the seventh game of Appleton’s 15-match tenure at Ewood Park, and yet they still had enough to win at the Emirates.

“It was not only a low point in the season, it was also something that put us in a very, very bad position to play against Bayern,” said Wenger. Arsenal were outplayed in midweek and beaten 3-1 by the eventual European champions. “You could see when we started the game against Bayern that everybody was low in confidence, and it cost us a lot. It was a big shock and we had not had time to recover because three days later we played Bayern at home and we were not ourselves.”

Which is not to say, though, that this game matters quite as much as their remaining 18 league matches, or that the damage to morale will be as heavy should they go out. Arsenal are in the title race, and that matters most. “This season is different because we are fighting in the Premier League. Last year when we played Blackburn it was one of the remaining targets of the season, but this year, because we are in a strong position, it will not stop us from focusing on the Premier League. Still, it is better to go through.”

So when Wenger says he will play “the strongest available possible team”, he does not mean that he will use players at risk of an injury. “The players have played many games so that means that if I’m told a player is on the fringe in muscular terms, I might rest him. But my purpose is to pick the strongest team.”

Wenger will not be able to pick Nicklas Bendtner, who injured his ankle scoring against Cardiff City on New Year’s Day, meaning Lukas Podolski will continue up front. Bendtner has been sent for a scan on his ankle, and if he will be out for more than three weeks, Wenger is likely to be forced into the transfer market for a new striker.

Olivier Giroud has recovered from his ankle injury but sickness means that Wenger gave him only a “10 per cent” chance of playing today. Mesut Özil, who, like Giroud, was very keen to play in this game, is likely to be “short”.

Those two are unlikely to be risked but even then Wenger has some difficult decisions to make. Theo Walcott has started five consecutive games since returning from injury and now would be as good a time as any to rest him. Jack Wilshere, who still needs careful management, enjoyed one of his best performances of recent months against Cardiff but that was only three days ago.

If Wenger started Wilshere and Walcott and they were injured, affecting the club’s crucial forthcoming title challenge, the fans would be furious. But if he did not play them – and Tomas Rosicky or even Serge Gnabry were to come in – only for his side to lose this game, against their fiercest rivals, and risk their long trophy drought ticking up towards a decade, it may be even worse.

Arsenal’s cup exits have felt traumatic in recent years, especially the further away they get from their last trophy in 2005. Their 2-0 loss at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals in 2011 immediately followed their Capital One Cup final defeat and their Champions League exit in Barcelona, triggering a desperate spiral in the Premier League too, in which they won just two of their last 10 games.

The same thing happened in 2007-08, their last authentic title challenge. Arsenal were five points clear of United with 12 games left when they went to Old Trafford for an FA Cup fifth-round tie. Wenger left Emmanuel Adebayor and Mathieu Flamini on the bench and United tore them to pieces, winning 4-0. It shattered confidence, and the next week came the infamous 2-2 draw at St Andrews, in which Eduardo broke his leg. Another crisis, another spiral, Arsenal won one of their next eight and United took the title.

Wenger is clearly a fan of the FA Cup. As he was quick to point out yesterday, he has won it four times. “That means I always put the effort in and I am very keen to do it again.” No one would doubt that Wenger would like to win it; whether he will go all-out with today’s team selection is a different matter. Fatigue and injuries might say that he cannot afford to. But the fragility and crises following recent exits might suggest that he cannot afford to do anything else.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor