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?
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
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

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?