Arsène Wenger is a great believer in statistics but when asked about one particular trend this week, the Arsenal manager dismissed it as coincidence.
Arsenal had a dismal record last season in big games that kicked off at Saturday lunchtime – losing heavily at Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City – and this afternoon, at 12.45, the champions come to the Emirates.
Does Wenger worry, then, that the pattern of last season might mean that with the City game their weekend will be ruined before it has barely even begun? Not quite.
“We live in a society where you need to find explanations for everything,” said Wenger. “Sometimes when your opponent is better than you, you lose. It wouldn’t matter if we played at 9pm or at 12.45, they were better than us.”
While Arsenal’s 2013-14 season can only be recorded as a success – they finished fourth in the Premier League and won the FA Cup, their first major trophy in nine years – it was scarred by conceding 17 goals in three lunchtime games at the Etihad (6-3), Anfield (5-1) and Stamford Bridge (6-0). For all Arsenal’s improvement, the physical and psychological gap between them and the very best teams seems as wide as ever.
Whatever the explanation for those matinee routs, Wenger would not ascribe it to their earliness. “I never honestly thought it was the kick-off time that lost us the games,” he said. “It was the performances. The poor performance was not linked with the kick-off times.”
Wenger’s stance is slightly surprising – some of his favourite topics include recovery times, the vagaries of the fixture calendar, matches being moved for television and the fine margins that can determine games – but he would not engage with this particular issue.
“No, I’ve heard that many times,” he said, refusing to take the excuse on offer. “Would you rather kick off at 3pm or at 12.45? It is two hours and 15 minutes. That does not produce a miracle in your physical recovery. Sometimes, maybe, on our side, we go a bit too much overboard on that.
The 10 debutants to look out for this weekend
The 10 debutants to look out for this weekend
1/8 Radamel Falcao (Manchester United)
One of four Manchester United players on this list, Falcao's arrival at Manchester United was the biggest surprise of a mad summer. It will be interesting to see where Louis van Gaal decides to play the Colombian hitman - will he start alongside Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, will he replace one of them, or will he start from the bench?
2/8 Luke Shaw (Manchester United)
Brought in on a massive fee, the English teenager has been roundly criticised for failing to get fit in time for the new season. With Ashley Young struggling as Van Gaal's left wing-back Luke Shaw should come in and immediately be an upgrade in the position. United and England fans will certainly be hoping so.
3/8 Marcos Rojo (Manchester United)
Almost a month after arriving at Manchester United, and four games into the season, Argentine defender Marcos Rojo finally has a passport and should play. Louis van Gaal's team have looked porous at the back and the fiesty defender should add some bite to the back-line.
4/8 Daley Blind (Manchester United)
A Louis van Gaal favourite, Daley Blind is a versatile player capable of slotting in across the defence, at wing-back or in central midfield. Classy and composed on the ball, Blind is a clever player - it'll be interesting to see where the Manchester United boss opts to play the utility man.
5/8 Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)
Danny Welbeck was brilliant for England in Switzerland, scoring two goals and showing all of the energy and enthusiasm that has made him a manager's favourite. Arsenal were desperately in need of cover after the injury to Olivier Giroud and Gunners fans will be hoping the £16m striker hits the ground running.
6/8 Alex Song (West Ham)
Although he never managed to break into the first team in two years at Barcelona, Alex Song is undoubtedly a top quality player. West Ham needed to add goals and flair to their struggling side and Sam Allardyce will be hoping Song can get close to the 11 assists he provided for Arsenal in the 2011-12 season.
7/8 Abel Hernandez (Hull City)
Steve Bruce has spent the majority of the money he received for the sale of Shane Long on the 24-year-old Hernandez. The Uruguayan had an excellent season in Serie A last year scoring 14 goals for Palermo, but is a bit of a wildcard. The pacey striker will look to develop the same kind of partnership Long enjoyed with Nikica Jelavic last season
8/8 Ricky Alvarez (Sunderland)
Alvarez's signature is a coup for Gus Poyet and Sunderland. The tall Argentina midfielder oozes class and was impressive for Inter Milan last season with four goals and eight assists, before being selected for the World Cup. Sunderland struggled for goals last season and will be hoping Alvarez can provide a spark for their strikers.
“I think 12.45 is a good kick-off time. I like it. In the FA Cup we had great games at 12.45. It’s not the kick-off time. It’s your performance, it’s how you turn up: 12.45 or three o’clock, for me that is just talk.”
Issues like this can assume more power the more they are talked about and become self-perpetuating, something Wenger is very keen to avoid. “Let’s not make a psychological problem of it,” he said.
“What is very difficult psychologically is to lose the games. In my job, the most important is always to find the right reasons and I don’t think it was to do with the early kick-off time.”
This leads inevitably to the question why, exactly, Arsenal were so uncompetitive in those matches last season. Wenger must have spent much of the summer thinking about this and his explanation came down to a lack of athleticism and intensity.
“I think we were beaten last year because we were not aggressive enough in those games,” he said. “We were not mobile enough and lost too many challenges. As a unit, we were beaten all over the place.”
Arsenal had a habit of conceding very early, forcing them to open up and go on to let in more. “The history of some of the games went against us as well. We were 2-0 down after 10 minutes. You are always in the position then that you have to take a huge gamble to come back and you open yourself up.”
What Arsenal need today, then, is to match City for mobility and intensity from the start. Wenger has made a small tactical tweak this season, removing his No 10, switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1, which gives his team more stability in the middle of the pitch.
If Mikel Arteta returns from the ankle injury he sustained against Besiktas in Istanbul last month, he will anchor the midfield. Wenger is unlikely to use Jack Wilshere there, even after he played the holding role during England’s 2-0 win in Switzerland on Monday.
“I personally prefer Jack Wilshere in a more advanced position than in a deep-lying role as a midfielder,” Wenger said. “If it works, it works and I am very happy for him but I think he is a guy capable of creating danger in the final third. He is provocative in his dribbling and I would like to use this quality.”
Wilshere is likely to play alongside Santi Cazorla in the middle, if Aaron Ramsey does not recover from his jarred ankle in time.
Wilshere, Cazorla and Arteta will have to cope with a City midfield which has proven too strong for them in recent meetings. Before last month’s Community Shield at Wembley, which Arsenal won 3-0, the Gunners had won just one of their last seven Premier League matches against City.
Wenger has been critical of City in the past but he sounded a different note ahead of today’s game, praising them for their far-sighted management. “They are intelligent people,” he said. “They have made intelligent decisions. They do not look to work off the cuff, they look to have plans and people who manage their club are very intelligent people, because from the outside they look like people who always try to anticipate what will happen next. That is why they have done extremely well.”
Of course, Wenger still hopes the Financial Fair Play rules will be fully implemented against those who break them, although he is not wholly confident. “It is much more difficult to fight the case and it takes time,” he said. “The recent case of modern justice is more sophisticated and maybe longer as well.”
City’s financial power helped to convince Bacary Sagna to leave the Emirates for the Etihad this summer, and Wenger hopes that he will get a good reception today.Reuse content