History tells Arsène Wenger how FA Cup exit can derail a season - FA & League Cups - Football - The Independent

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.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
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

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week